The disruption/obstruction of Parliament almost on a regular basishas shown fault lines in our system of governance as never before. The founding fathers of our governance structure would never have visualised a situation where one significant pillar of the system would be paralysed by actions of those very people charged with operating it. The present situation is a systemic failure. For in the midst of the cacophony of blame game, if one reads the fine print, no political combine has categorically rejected disruption/obstruction of Parliament as a legitimate instrument of political strategy. The debate centres on the timing and the justification of issues on which disruption takes place.
The present situation has assumed crisis proportions with sections of the ‘People’s Representatives’ holding up important legislation that would benefit people for their own whims and fancies. It has taken over a decade to arrive at a consensus on GST and now there is a real danger of going back to square one. Is that not a huge price for the society to pay for safeguarding the so-called democratic rights of a few to indulge in disruptive protests? The matter is too serious and far-reaching in its consequences to be left to the wisdom and better sense of those involved to resolve. For, recent experience shows that political combines will be largely driven by considerations of political gain. It is time for all stakeholders to act and fix systemic glitches.
In the din and dust of politics and popular discourse, one often tends to overlook the most important stakeholder in a parliamentary democracy, the voter. All elected representatives are, ultimately, answerable to the voter, and so is Parliament collectively accountable to those who have constituted it by electing its members. Why can the relationship between the two be not regarded in terms of a ‘contract’ for five years? As a corollary it would involve commitments from both sides. The voter fulfils his part of the bargain by electing a representative to the House. MLAs perform two functions: one, act as public representatives and, two, act as lawmakers in their respective houses. It is the second function that has come into question of late. As part of their contract to those who have elected them, they may be asked to give an undertaking in the form of an affidavit at the time of filing their nomination as candidates eschewing any action that in any manner obstructs the working of the legislature to which they may get elected. Human nature being what it is, most individual actions are driven by fear of consequences, legal or otherwise, rather than notions of good and bad. An undertaking through an affidavit may just instill an element of fear of possible consequences.
The second part of the contractual obligation will have to be a collective one. This can be in the form of Parliament drawing up its own work plan for five years at the beginning of its term.
This may be done in consultation with the government and the opposition in the shape of an MOU to be signed by all concerned, containing session-wise ‘deliverables’, to be reviewed every year. Parliament already has adequate infrastructure and enabling framework for this; there are various committees. But an overarching broad document as an MOU to be in the public domain will not only bind all concerned to an action plan, but would also go a long way in enhancing the image of parliament as an institution in the eyes of the public.
A third component of possible long-term corrective action would be the introduction of a ‘cost of doing business’ concept. A lot has been said and written about possible loss to the exchequer, as a result of Parliament disruptions. Figures of such a ‘loss’ have been bandied about rather loosely. It may be useful to introduce a concept of ‘cost of governance’ in respect of each institution — Parliament, Executive,and Judiciary — in terms of relating the same to percentage of GDP. Each institution can introduce its own range and link it to measurable output parameters. If nothing else, at least this would instill an element of cost-consciousness in each institution and the stakeholders (taxpayers in this case) would also know how much they are paying to maintain them. Just as in the case of fiscal deficit, the concept can be fine-tuned to limit the cost to a predetermined percentage of GDP.
The most difficult questions of ‘how’ and ‘who’ can only be answered rather simplistically as ‘all stakeholders’. Over the past few years, several far-reaching changes have come about — introduction of EVMs that has checked poll rigging, declaration of assets by candidates, as also details of criminal cases at the time of filing nomination; termination of membership of Members of the House convicted in certain cases; and NOTA. All these initiatives were not driven by a single entity, but by multiple agencies/groups, including the government, the Election Commission, the Judiciary and, in many cases by civil society and activists. These changes did come about, in spite of severe resistance from vested interests. There is no reason to believe that such changes cannot be initiated. Given the right environment and public pressure, changes may happen in-house. The only caveat is that the issues need to be seen as one of systemic failure, and not one involving one group or the other. We have seen in the recent past what huge impact public pressure can have in bringing about change.
The author is former Secretary to GOI (email@example.com)