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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 12, March 9, 2013

Why Do We Need Parliament?

Sunday 10 March 2013

by M. MANISHA

The recent debates surrounding parlia-mentary inefficacy raise several important, but unanswered, questions: why don’t MPs participate in parliamentary proceedings on a regular basis? Why do they actively obstruct parliamentary work? Has the inefficiency of Parliament led to the rise of alternative forums of deliberation? If so, what are these and are they capable of building legitimate democratic consensus?

It is popularly believed that MPs are least interested in parliamentary work. It is equally common to blame the attitude of MPs and question their respect for democratic institutions, particularly Parliament. Such beliefs have contri-buted significantly to the overall impression that Parliament is an inefficient, if not ineffective, institution. While such views may not be completely incorrect, it is imperative to look into the objective conditions that make legis-lative work less rewarding. After all, politicians, like all other human beings, are guided by a structure of incentives and disincentives and direct their efforts only where there are adequate rewards.

Elections: Means to End?

OVER the last 65 years, as the parliamentary system of governance in India has evolved, certain distinct characteristics have emerged. One such characteristic is the importance attached to elections. This is a cause for much celebration. Such is the importance of elections that democratic institutions in general, and Parliament in particular, have been shaped around and by the representative process. More specifically, it has responded to the rigours of the electoral process. The ultimate purpose of elections, which is to mould the political process to achieve common goals, has sub-served to the electoral process. This has meant that the ‘means’ rather than the ‘end’ has become the ultimate end.

Political parties, irrespective of the dispen-sation, have emphasised on the popularity of the candidates in terms of electoral outcomes rather than their suitability or parliamentary performance, for selecting their candidates. (Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta) In particular, parties are guilty of paying least attention to parliamentary performance while distributing tickets. Nor do parties insist on parliamentary attendance. But, for occasional instances where voting on important Bills takes place and absence of members may result in embarrassment, party whips do not have any rules to ensure attendance of members. There is no penalty for non-performance of parliamentary duties either. Thus, as far individual MPs are concerned, there is neither any incentive for parliamentary performance nor any disincentive for non-performance of parliamentary duties.

That political parties do not give importance to parliamentary work is also evidenced by the fact that there are no set procedures within political parties to allot parliamentary work to MPs, such as asking questions on different issues or raising matters during zero hour. Parlia-mentarians are left free to take or not to take part in parliamentary discussions. There are no mechanisms within the political parties to provide assistance to members who wish to participate in parliamentary work. The MPs are left free to decide on issues that they would like to take up and the procedures that they would like to adopt for taking up those.

It may be mentioned, however, that the Lok Sabha Secretariat holds orientation courses for newly elected parliamentarians to acquaint them about various parliamentary procedures. How-ever, members who have no previous legislative experience need more than mere technical know-ledge of parliamentary procedures. Moreover, given the fact that nearly three-fourths of the MPs are generalists and do not have in-depth knowledge of either the law-making process or the Bills being debated upon, educating the members about the issues involved is an essential pre-requisite for effective participation. Not only are political parties more equipped to perform this function, they are obliged to do so for their members.

The maximum participation in parlia-mentary debates comes from two category of members: first, those in the national leadership, secondly, the middle level leaders. During a debate on national issues, experienced national-level leaders of every political dispensation express their views. Such views are widely covered both by the print and the audiovisual media and much of the debate in the public domain centres around the views of the national leadership. The middle level leaders across parties have limited parliamentary time to make their mark, especially as the number of actual sittings of Parliament has declined significantly. As several political leaders have pointed out, MPs attempt to make their mark by either disrupting the House proceedings or raising local issues. This helps to garner some public recognition, which may bolster their recall value during elections. Walkouts and adjournments are often strategically planned for maximising political gains.

Thus, it is not the desire to hold the government accountable that motivates an MP; rather, it is the publicity that a member gets, contributing to his/her electoral prospects, that has become the incentive for parliamentary work.

Whither Opposition?

IN a heterogeneous and multi-cultural society like India, where the opposition to the government comes from a variety of sources, the task of consolidating the opposing views and putting them forth in an institutional forum rests collec-tively on the Opposition. From its inception, the Opposition in India has developed a strategy of critiquing the government not with a view improving the quality of governance or ensuring the government’s accountability, but with a view to remaining in public memory. The techniques that have been adopted for this purpose have changed over the years from heated arguments in the 1950s to slogan-shouting in the 1960s and 1970s, to walkouts, agitating in the well of the House, and complete boycott of House proceedings in the 2010s; all of which are determined by the level of public attention that those draw. As the eminent sociologist, Andre Beteille, (2011), remarked. “The tone of civility has all but disappeared from parliamentary debate. Interruptions are frequent and noisy, and it has become a matter of routine for several persons to speak at the same time. Rushing to the well of the House is no longer an uncommon event, and the Speaker has a difficult time in maintaining order and has to adjourn the House repeatedly... its members now spend so much of their time in disputes that appear to be both endless and fruitless.”

The focus on developing long-term cons-tructive alternatives has been conspicuously absent from the agenda of Opposition politics. Both the national political parties in the Opposition such as the BJP and the regional parties like the Shiv Sena or BJD have adopted the same strategy. The data relating to the parliamentary functioning brings to the fore this picture of an aggressive but perhaps ‘dysfunctional’ Opposition. In the fifteenth Lok Sabha, for instance, the Opposition has had numerous occasions to criticise the government. However, the strategy of the Opposition seems to have been to disrupt Parliament rather than hold it accountable. In 2010-11, 417 hours were lost due to disruptions. Interestingly, in the same year 18 per cent of the Bills were passed in less than five minutes. In the last winter session in 2012, the Parliament worked for only 56 per cent of it scheduled time and lost nearly 106 hours. In the Rajya Sabha, Question Hour could only be conducted on four days; and this prompted Upper House Chairman Hamid Ansari to comment that it should be scrapped from the business of the House. Fortynine out of 400 starred questions listed in the Lok Sabha and 43 out of 300 in the Rajya Sabha could be orally answered.

A qualitative analysis of the discussions within Parliament too reveals that even when issues have been discussed, the tone and tenor of discussions as well as the modes of address are designed to attract maximum media attention with an eye on electoral success. Discussions have almost always been along party lines and are in the nature of a critique of the government.

However, what has gone unnoticed in the entire debate is that while the top-level leadership of the Opposition party organises widely publicised boycotts, the middle-level leadership has used the available parliamentary space to raise constituency issues and local concerns through procedures like short duration discussion, zero hour and like. A survey of the MPs has shown that they believed that representing the constituency through both parliamentary and unparliamentarily methods improve their chances of re-election. The four-teenth Lok Sabha spent nearly 20 per cent of its time discussing such issues, almost the same as legislative discussions.

Alternative Forum for Deliberation: Media?

THE inadequacy of the parliamentary debates has given an opportunity to the other institutions, particularly the media, to occupy the space that traditionally belonged to Parlia-ment. In the early post-independence period the media sourced its news from parliamentary proceedings. Several news items in almost all newspapers centred on speeches made by MPs in the House. The English language newspapers carried columns that encapsulated the major issues discussed in the House. The media therefore functioned as an extension of Parliament —a forum for rational debate.

However, the media has substantially reduced the coverage of the parliamentary proceedings. While policy announcements made by the government both inside and outside the Parlia-ment are widely reported by newspapers, a majority of the reporting of parliamentary proceedings relates to disruption of parlia-mentary work, loss of time and cost to the exchequer etc.

Often leaders of various political parties confront each other in the television studios and debate the very issues that could have been dealt more exhaustively by Parliament. It is almost unanimously agreed that the media, particularly the privately owned and run audio visual media, is driven by commercial conside-rations. They are intermittent in their coverage of public issues, without much follow- up action. Their choice of issues and method of discussion are governed by commercial interest. They have also been criticised for reducing complex and multi-layered issues to simplistic proportions. Further, there is no popular control over the issues discussed and the length of time for which each of these is discussed. Despite such drawbacks, it appears that the media has been more successful in initiating debates on pressing national issues. The low level of trust that MPs enjoy has also indirectly contributed to greater public acceptability of media discussions.

Civil Society Initiative 

THE citizen activism over the Jan Lokpal Bill or the demand for better laws to deal with violence against women in the aftermath of the ‘Delhi gang-rape case’ shows that apart from the media, members of the civil society too have emerged as participants in the deliberative process. It is not uncommon for civil society groups to initiate the process of legislative enactment. However, in most such cases the members of such groups communicate the need for legislation. They also provide active assistance to the bureaucracy at the drafting stage of the Bill by providing necessary data and information. But the task of deliberating on the proposed enactment necessarily rests with the legislature in view of its representative character.

However, certain important trends in civil activism need to be mentioned. First, there are voices, at least amongst some sections of the civil society, to bypass the legislature and proclaim legitimacy of their views on the basis of responses to activist meets, social networking sites and media attention. Second, the social activists proclaim legitimacy for their views at a stage when no significant debate on the issue at stake has taken place. Thirdly, there has been intense pressure on the institutional set-up to accept the outputs of ‘civil society’ initiatives as final. Thus, Anna Hazare and the IAC wanted the Parliament to adopt their version of the Lokpal Bill, transforming the elected representa-tives and Parliament into mere “rubber stamps”. There is some merit in the argument of opponents of civil society initiatives that since leaders of such a movement, like the one led by Anna Hazare, are not democratically elected, they are, therefore, out of the institution’s purview. Hence, their representative character is questionable and their accountability is difficult to enforce.

It may be argued that the popularity of civil society initiatives are largely on account of the failure of the government to enlist the partici-pation of people’s movements through the existing institutional mechanism such as the political parties. It has, often mistakenly, believed that these initiatives have the support of only the urban middle classes who do not have a significant impact on the electoral outcome; and thus the adoption of an ostrich-like approach towards civil society initiatives on the part of the authorities.

In most societies civil society initiatives find inlet into the political system through political parties. But, the undemocratic character of the political parties, and the limited nature of their recruitment has deprived them of fresh grass-roots level initiatives and leadership. Hence, civil society initiatives have acquired an indepen-dent character and a group dynamics of their own tapping into popular dissatisfaction with established parties. Political parties have also been guilty of side-stepping issues espoused by people’s movements in their own platforms. They have therefore been somewhat cut off from the popular aspirations. A growing middle class with myriad expectations from the political system has provided ready support to civil society initiatives rather than the political parties.

Conclusion

WHILE these developments may not appear to be very positive, one wonders why Members of Parliament have time and again themselves called for sessions of Parliament. The answer to this question may be found in the merits of deliberative democracy. This results in better and more rational decisions since it is based on free and open and rational deliberation by popularly elected representatives,

 Secondly, the representatives are chosen by the people by a mechanism (elections), which is estimated to be fair, explicitly for the purpose of representing them. Thus, the Parliament, constituted on the basis of universal adult suffrage, is by far the most democratic and representative of all the institutions of government. The Parliament can claim a legitimacy which none of the other institutions can warrant.

Thirdly, the decisions in the deliberative bodies are based on the principle of majority and are therefore generally estimated to be fair and legitimate. In all such discussions the views of both the majority and minority resonate by virtue of its composition. It is on account of this that the Parliament in India has also emerged as a platform for ventilating issues of local significance, imparting to it a local dimension as well. Thus, despite being a national body the Parliament today projects not just the macro-level, pan-India issues, but also brings to the fore regional, local and constituency-level concerns.

Finally, in a diverse society such as India parliamentary deliberation does help in building a national consensus on contentious issues. Both the government and Opposition parties recognise the merit of this multi-functional, deliberative mechanism. It is, therefore, not surprising that notwithstanding the declining efficacy of Parliament, members across party lines tacitly recognise its importance. This also accounts for the growing concern amongst the people and scholars about declining standards of parliamen-tary debates. To debunk the Parliament as nothing but a “talk shop” may be detrimental to the health of Indian democracy itself.

Dr M. Manisha is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Jain University, Bangalore.

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