The Continuing Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in India
As one enters the premises of Parliament, from the entry point, where the statue of Dr BR Ambedkar stands staring staring at the oval structure in front, to the corridors of the Parliament Library Building, the Annex Building and of the main building – the Parliament – one cannot help noticing the abundance of posters and screaming flex “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav” in the face of every viewer. The 75th year of India’s independence as a nation should rightly be celebrated in splendor at the country’s highest legislative body.
However, for those who have witnessed the workings of Parliament up close in recent years, the cruel irony of this proud celebration of mahotsav (festival) in the Parliament building is not lost. Because, if there is an institution whose functioning has been the most amputated and whose stature has been the most lowered in recent years, it is our Parliament. Although this is an accusation that has been repeatedly made by members of opposition political parties, without going into politics, it is worth taking a look at some data relating to the performance of Parliament to support this assertion. All data, unless otherwise stated, is from Statistical Handbook 2021 released by the Union Parliamentary Affairs Department last month.
The percentage of bills referred to Parliamentary Committees has dropped significantly, from 71% in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14) to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19), and only around 13% since 2019.
Parliamentary committees: One of the ways in which our Parliament ensures proper deliberation and consultation with all relevant stakeholders before a bill is introduced is through the operation of its many committees. Bills, once referred to a committee, are examined in detail, the opinions of all relevant stakeholders are sought and an appropriate report is submitted taking into account all these opinions. For the most part, the operation of our parliamentary committees, because they take place behind closed doors and out of public view, has been non-partisan and fact-based.
According to data from the non-profit organization PRS Legislative Research, the percentage of bills referred to committees has dropped significantly, from 71% in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2014) to 27% in the 16th. Lok Sabha (2014-2019). ), and only around 13% since 2019.
Orders issued: The provision for issuing ordinances, pursuant to Section 123 of our Constitution, is applicable only when “immediate action” is required. Needless to say, this provision has been subject to excessive abuse in recent times. Between 2004 and 2014, 61 ordinances were passed at an average of about six ordinances per year. After 2014, more than 80 ordinances were passed in eight years, at the rate of ten per year.
Between 2004 and 2014, 61 ordinances were passed at an average of about six ordinances per year. After 2014, more than 80 ordinances were passed in eight years, at the rate of ten per year.
The above matters relate to Government Bills and Government Business, but the scope of Parliament is much broader than that. It is also meant to function as a check on the functioning of the executive. There are several parliamentary devices given to MPs to ensure that this responsibility is upheld. Let’s see how the current government gets away with allowing this responsibility to exist:
Short-term discussions held: Urgent matters of national/public importance may be raised on the floor of the House in a brief discussion under Rule 193 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business at Lok Sabha/Rule 176 of the Rules of Procedure and conduct of business in the Rajya Sabha. This is mainly used by the opposition to hold discussions that could put the government on their backs.
During the 14th (2004-09) and 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14), a total of 113 short talks were held. In the 16th (2014-19) and 17th (2019-present) Lok Sabha, this number dropped to 42.
Draw attention : This is another important parliamentary device, by which a Member of Parliament can raise a matter of pressing public importance and bring it to the attention of the Minister concerned, and the Minister must respond to the concern raised. During the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, 152 Attention Call Notices were authorized. On the 16th and 17th Lok Sabha, this number dropped to 17.
Half-hour discussion: Under Rule 55 of the Lok Sabha Rules / Rule 60 of the Rajya Sabha Rules, a half hour discussion on any question answered may be raised by a member, if the member feels that further clarification / discussion is necessary on the answer given by the minister . During the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, 21 such discussions took place. After 2014, only five of them took place.
During the 14th (2004-09) and 15th Lok Sabha, a total of 113 short talks were held. In the 16th and 17th (2019-present) Lok Sabha, this number dropped to 42.
Guarantees put in place: The Minister, on any question raised by a Member on the floor of the House, may give an assurance – an undertaking that the question raised by the Member will be dealt with and that the necessary measures will be taken in this regard. Between 2004 and 2014, 99.38% of the insurances were implemented. After 2014, this percentage fell to 79%, with 2021 seeing the lowest record ever with less than 30% insurance implemented.
All these devices are used by members of the opposition to question the government on its functioning. The fact that all these devices no longer work as before shows a deliberate stifling of all kinds of criticism and rejection from the opposition.
Position of vice-president remaining vacant: For the first time since independence, the post of vice-president of the Lok Sabha remained vacant for about three years. By convention, the post of vice-president is attributed to a member of the opposition. The media claimed that the Congress party Yuvajana Shramika Rythu had been offered the post, but they refused to accept it unless the request to grant special status to Andhra Pradesh was met. Other reports claimed that the Biju Janta Dal had been offered the post but even that did not materialize amid growing hostility between him and the Bharatiya Janta Party in the State Assembly from Odisha. Most of the other opposition parties (except these two parties and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, with only one member in the Lok Sabha) criticized the government much more aggressively. This begs the question: is the position being kept vacant by the government to have a more favorable hold on the conduct of House business?
During the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, 152 Attention Call Notices were authorized. On the 16th and 17th Lok Sabha, this number dropped to 17.
Denial of entry to press: If someone walks around the upper oval balcony on the first floor of the Parliament building and stands facing the famous statue of Mahatma Gandhi on the lawn, they will be standing in front of the Press Trust of India room of the Parliament. Again, the irony hits hard, as even journalists are denied entry to the premises of Parliament during sessions. Many protested against this attempt to ban the media. Like the statue of Dr. Ambedkar, that of Mahatma Gandhi too, looks solemnly.
During the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, 21 half-hour discussions were held. After 2014, only five of them took place.
Our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is ridiculed and vilified every moment today, was an exemplary parliamentarian who gave the institution the respect it deserves. He regularly attended sessions and attended question time even when his ministries were not being discussed. At the Constituent Assembly, Nehru said: “…we operate on a global stage and the eyes of the world are on us and the eyes of all our past are on us. Our past bears witness to what we do here and although the future is yet to be born, the future too is watching us in one way or another.”.
Between 2004 and 2014, 99.38% of the insurances were implemented. After 2014, this percentage fell to 79%, with 2021 seeing the lowest record ever with less than 30% insurance implemented.
We are that future, and it is time for all of us to look back on the foundations of our country and return to the path laid out by the founding fathers. In this 75th year of independence, having a healthy and functional parliament that allows for debate and discussion is the only mahotsav worth – one mahotsav called Democracy.
Soumyadeep Chatterjee is a policy researcher and former LAMP Fellow.