The lowering of the overall time spent in conducting legislative business, the deteriorating ability of Question Hour to hold the government accountable, increasing disruptions even by the ruling party, the stalling of the election of the deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha, lower referrals to and therefore scrutiny by Parliamentary committees, and the passing of major Bills without discussion, are all signs of the weaking democratic spirit within the Parliament.
THE Parliament is the biggest symbol of democracy, and performs the essential functions of law-making, financial oversight, ensuring accountability of the Cabinet and representing people’s voices.
The deteriorating productivity of the Parliament goes hand-in-hand with the weakening of its democratic legacy. This includes lowering of the overall time spent in conducting legislative business, the deteriorating ability of Question Hour to hold the government accountable, increasing disruptions even by the ruling party, the stalling of the election of the deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha, lower referrals to and, therefore, scrutiny by Parliamentary committees, the passing of major Bills without discussion and, most importantly and recently, the passing of the Union Budget 2023–24 without any discussion.
Data collected by non-profit organisation PRS Legislative Research shows that the 17th Lok Sabha (2019–24) has functioned for 230 sitting days so far. With just one year remaining and only 58 average sitting days a year, it is likely to be the shortest full-term Lok Sabha since 1952, surpassing the 16th Lok Sabha’s (2014–19) record of having the lowest number of sitting days (331).
In the recent budget session, which concluded on April 6, the Lok Sabha functioned for 33 percent of its scheduled time (45 hours) and the Rajya Sabha, for 24 percent (31 hours) of its scheduled time, making it the sixth-shortest budget session. The second part of the session was spent mainly on the procedural work of tabling papers, with the Lok Sabha working for 5 percent and the Rajya Sabha for 6 percent of their scheduled time respectively.
As ministries’ responses to starred and unstarred questions are carefully drafted, supplementary questions provide MPs with the opportunity to corner the government due to their unfiltered spontaneity. However, over the last two decades, members from across parties have disrupted Question Hour, leading to the decline of this particular oversight tool.
The downward trend in the Parliament’s productivity is worrying and reflects the inability of the government to effectively run both Houses, as well as the decline of healthy competition and cooperation among the members of the treasury bench and the opposition to ensure that members of Parliament (MPs) fulfil their primary legislative responsibilities.
Though the number of Bills pending at the end of the session is 37, the government, responsible for running the Houses smoothly, itself caused major disruptions— by protesting to demand an apology from leader of the Indian National Congress (INC) in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Choudhary over his ‘Rashtrapatni’ remark in the monsoon session of 2022, and recently from disqualified INC MP Rahul Gandhi for his supposedly ‘anti-India’ remarks in the United Kingdom, even in the Rajya Sabha, of which both were not even members.
Interestingly, this was followed by the uncharacteristically swift disqualification of Gandhi by the Lok Sabha secretariat after a Gujarat court sentenced him to two years imprisonment in the Modi surname defamation case.
Not only have important Bills like the Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2022 been passed without discussion, the proposed expenditure of all Union Ministries, amounting to ₹42 lakh crore, was passed without any discussion, amidst disruptions by the opposition. This is disappointing because one of the key roles of Parliament is to approve the Union budget and authorise the expenditure of the government.
This session also saw the Lok Sabha live telecast being completely muted as the opposition raised slogans demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe over the allegations of stock manipulation and accounting fraud levelled by American investment research firm Hindenburg Research earlier this year against multinational conglomerate the Adani Group.
A huge chunk of time was spent by the chairperson of Rajya Sabha in trying to bring order to the floor of the House through soliloquies. A higher degree of impartiality by the presiding officers can be argued for in order to give space to dissenting voices.
Protests in the Parliament make important statements by themselves, but if they lead to a complete washout of essential business consistently, MPs may do well to remember Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s last speech to the Constituent Assembly, in which he said, “If we wish to maintain democracy, not merely in form, but also in fact … the first thing in my judgment is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives.”
Questions to hold the government accountable
The Question Hour, which has historically been employed as an effective tool for accountability, has now been reduced to a barely fulfilled obligation, with the recently-concluded budget session seeing the least time spent on questions.
The deputy speaker is conventionally chosen from a party other than the ruling one, and therefore their non-election is not symbolic of healthy, democratic functioning.
As per PRS data, Question Hour functioned for 19 percent of the scheduled time in Lok Sabha, and 9 percent of the same in the Rajya Sabha, with only 7 percent of starred questions being answered in each House.
Further, MPs have noted how more and more questions are being disallowed on obscure grounds, citing national security. As ministries’ responses to starred and unstarred questions are carefully drafted, supplementary questions provide MPs with the opportunity to corner the government due to their unfiltered spontaneity. However, over the last two decades, members from across parties have disrupted Question Hour, leading to a decline of this particular oversight tool.
Article 93 of the Constitution states that the Lok Sabha will choose two members of the House to be speaker and deputy speaker, as soon as may be.
Despite entering the final year of its term and the Supreme Court issuing notice to the government in February this year to respond to a public interest litigation regarding the delay in the election of the deputy speaker, theLok Sabha is yet to pay heed. Notably, the deputy speaker is conventionally chosen from a party other than the ruling one, and therefore their non-election is not symbolic of healthy, democratic functioning.
Lowering the number of Bills examined further
Parliamentary committees play an important role in strengthening parliamentary democracy. They give a platform to MPs across party lines to express their individual thoughts beyond the party whip, sometimes even contradictory to party ideologies. These committees play an important role in providing a nuanced examination of legislation, the performance of specific sectors, and assessments of demands for grants.
However, PRS data shows that only 25 percent of the Bills introduced were referred to committees in the 16th Lok Sabha, as compared to 71 percent and 60 percent in the 15th and 14th Lok Sabha respectively. Only 14 Bills have been referred to parliamentary committees for examination in the 17th Lok Sabha.
Private member Bills (PMBs) are introduced by MPs who are not cabinet ministers, and draw the government’s attention to MPs’ individual opinions on existing issues and gaps requiring legislative intervention. Since 1952, only 14 PMBs have become laws, the last one in 1970.
The 16th Lok Sabha witnessed the highest number of PMBs introduced (999) since 2000. However, less than ten were taken up for discussion. In the 17th session so far, only a minuscule 1–2 percent of time was spent on PMBs. In the recently-concluded budget session, not even a single PMB was introduced or discussed.
Important legislation must be duly deliberated upon and passed unhurriedly, taking into account the views of all stakeholders, in the true spirit of democracy.
In order to increase the opportunity for private members’ business to be conducted and seriously considered, it is essential to take note of MPs’ inputs. For instance, MPs have suggested that the discussion be shifted to Wednesday, because many of them leave for their respective constituencies on Friday afternoons to devote time to their constituents over the weekend, hampering the conduct of private members’ business, which only takes place on Fridays.
In Canada, private legislative business usually happens four times a week. Giving space to private members’ business beyond Fridays may prove beneficial.
The way forward
The overall weakening of democratic traditions is a systematic and multi-layered issue rooted in the lack of intra-party democracy across party-lines. It is important for our elected representatives to address these concerns and restore the Parliament’s status as a shrine for democracy.
With the election year approaching, further polarisation over party lines and weaker cooperative spirit amongst the executive and the legislature, lower productivity in Parliament can be expected. However, important legislation must be duly deliberated upon and passed unhurriedly, taking into account the views of all stakeholders, in the true spirit of democracy.
Overall improvement in the research input for MPs will improve the quality and level of debate. Unlike the European Union, or the United States, there is an institutional vacuum in India with regard to legislative assistance for MPs, even though initiatives such as the Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament (LAMP) Fellowship by PRS reduces this gap. There is a further need to institutionalise legislative research support for MPs to better inform the legislative process of the country.
Over the years, the sitting days of Parliament have reduced. Legislatures in some democracies, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, allow the agenda of discussion for some days to be set by the opposition. An increase in the number of sittings, particularly for state legislatures, along with an enhanced framework for the opposition parties to raise their issues without disrupting government business, would be important steps in strengthening democracy.