For healthier debates in the new house of the people

With a higher proportion of opposition MPs in the new Lok Sabha, one hopes the House would no longer be treated as a mere notice board for the government
For healthier debates in the new house of the people
Express illustration | sourav roy

One of the more interesting possibilities thrown up by the recent election results is the prospect for a change in the functioning of parliament. In the days when PM Narendra Modi’s BJP enjoyed an absolute majority, the institution had been reduced to little more than a notice board for the government’s announcements and a rubber-stamp for its decisions. The expectation that it will now instead be run according to parliamentary rules, conventions and practices established worldwide and honoured in the past in our own nation too, suddenly looks more likely in a Lok Sabha in which nearly 45 percent of members are from the opposition.

Whereas, in the days of the UPA government, 86 percent of all Bills were first referred to a parliamentary standing committee, the BJP/NDA government just sent 14 percent of Bills to committees for scrutiny. This has deprived MPs of all parties the opportunity to examine proposed Bills in detail and offer suggestions the government should take into account before the Bill is brought to the House for a vote. As it is, Bills arrive on the floor untested by such a parliamentary process and, since the BJP has so far enjoyed a brute majority, are passed without a single opposition comment or criticism being taken into account. This must change, and the new reality might help bring it about.

The composition and chairmanship of parliamentary committees must also be modified to reflect the strength of the opposition and the convention of inviting senior opposition MPs to chair committees on substantial issues restored. The BJP behaved disgracefully in ending the long-established practice, since the very inception of the committee system in parliament, of having the External Affairs Committee always chaired by an opposition MP to show that the nation was of one mind on foreign policy. Currently, all major parliamentary committees dealing with sensitive issues are chaired by MPs of the ruling party or its allies—and this must change.

The rules of business in parliament, in theory, permit the opposition to raise issues of importance through an assortment of techniques under various provisions. But, especially during the second term of the BJP government, most of the burning issues raised by the opposition in the Business Advisory Committee of the Lok Sabha were not brought to the floor for discussion.

Instead of debating such vital but contentious issues raised by the opposition as unemployment, inflation, the farm crisis or the Agniveer scheme, let alone the border situation with China during the monsoon and winter sessions, the lower house was assigned an innocuous and inconsequential discussion on sports, which occupied the entire time available for such discussions (unrelated to the passage of Bills). Again, a weightier opposition should be able to bring up major issues for discussion without being steamrolled in this manner.

The strongest method available to an opposition MP to force a discussion or debate is the adjournment motion. This well-established parliamentary technique permits a member to move a motion to adjourn the proceedings of the House in order to discuss a matter of urgent public importance. So far in the BJP’s ten-year tenure, every single adjournment motion submitted to the Speaker has been rejected. This is almost unprecedented in any parliamentary democracy elsewhere. One would hope that a more receptive Speaker could change this habit of rejecting every single adjournment motion moved by an opposition MP, and admit at least one per session to permit the kind of healthy debate that is the essence of our democratic system.

Another unparliamentary practice that has been resorted to by the Speaker during the second BJP term is to club all proposed amendments to Bills into one lot in order to reject them collectively by voice vote without discussion. This is a travesty, since the outcome of the vote is anyway a foregone conclusion and introducing each amendment individually is the only opportunity for an opposition MP to place his or her concerns about a Bill on the record.

A similar parliamentary technique given short shrift in recent years is the right of MPs to record their dissent on an issue—even a Bill that has just been passed by the government with an overwhelming majority—through calling for a “division”. Though traditional practice just requires an MP to call out the word “division” to oblige the Speaker to record the votes of all MPs present, the current Speaker has in fact systematically refused even to notice requests for division. These parliamentary techniques are essential for the opposition to feel they are valued members of an institution rather than irrelevances who can always be disregarded and outvoted.

Equally important is the attitude of the government and the spirit in which it conducts parliamentary affairs. It used to be said in the UPA days that the parliamentary affairs minister spent more time on  opposition benches than in his own seat, consulting with the other side on every initiative.

During the BJP’s recent tenure, the ministers concerned not only stayed in their seats but issued diktats to the opposition with the air of schoolmasters chastising errant delinquents. A different approach will now be required. No BJP scheme requiring a constitutional amendment, for instance—as would be the case with the Uniform Civil Code or the ‘one nation, one election’ scheme—should be introduced without detailed prior consultation with the opposition.

Similarly, proposals affecting states’ rights, the federal system, the allocation of funds and other national resources to states, or matters requiring implementation by state governments will have to be introduced only after prior consultation—especially given the new government’s reliance on regional parties within its own coalition.

One might well ask whether my optimism that these changes will occur might not fall afoul of the BJP’s preference for “bulldozer justice” and the PM’s own well-established instinct to dispense with the niceties of parliamentary consultation. The reason I am confident the government will have to mend its ways lies in the capacity of a robust opposition to thwart the work of parliament if denied a fair hearing.

During UPA-2, the BJP, with just 116 MPs, frequently brought the Lok Sabha to a standstill by disrupting proceedings. The INDIA bloc has twice that number. Better to work with them across the aisle than wreck the system by failing to acknowledge their strength. One can only hope the newly-chastened NDA government understands that in democracy, conciliation is always preferable to confrontation.

(Views are personal)

(office@tharoor.in)

Shashi Tharoor | Fourth-term Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram and Sahitya-Akademi winning author of 24 books, most recently Ambedkar: A Life

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