By Dr S. Saraswathi
The last session of the 16th Lok Sabha came to an end on February 13 with a memorable speech of Prime Minister Modi effectively making amends for the over-all failure of the party in power. However he also chose to highlight the NDA’s people-oriented policies and programmes and correct the lies of opponents freely circulating and euphemistically called “fake news”. It is time to broadly assess the functioning of this Lok Sabha in terms of its legislative record as well as the manner of conducting business.
The Lok Sabha, which is the legislative wing of governance, is not to be confused with the executive. It comprises ruling and Opposition parties though conducting Parliament is the job of the government. An assessment of its work is practically an evaluation of the contributions of members of all parties and independents represented in the House.
The 16th Lok Sabha started with a large contingent of new members numbering 315, i.e. more than half the House. It is the second highest number after 1977 election that returned 376 new members. This, itself should have proved a great advantage by bringing new talents and enthusiasm that it would have created normally. However, expectations of lively debates and wider participation by new members, turned out to be farce. For, it is also true that incumbent party members are closer to their parties and have long-term aspirations and take Parliament work seriously.
There is a view that our legislatures are at the root of the problems faced in governance today and that the present electoral system is the promoter of political corruption rampant in the country. Still, there is no support for the idea to seek an alternative to the parliamentary system of democracy. At present, we have to refresh the system wherever it shows signs of decay. For every deficiency found in the functioning of parliament, remedies also can be found.
Legislative and representative roles of Parliament and State legislatures are similar, but not identical. Parliament members must have a national perspective and interest while safeguarding their home State interests. Unfortunately, the Indian Parliament has often become the battle ground for pressing demands and aspirations of States, which is mistaken as issues in federalism.
The 16th Lok Sabha, especially in the final two years, despite giving an impression of an unruly gathering shouting in the well of the House or outside Parliament when it is in session enacted 151 Acts and repealed 1,428 as part of easing doing business. A total of 189 bills were introduced and 299 bills were passed. Railway Budget has been merged with the General Budget and the distinction as Plan and Non-Plan expenditure has been given up.
Seven Constitutional amendments have been carried out during 2014 and 2019. These include 100th amendment in pursuance of the agreement entered into between Government of India and Government of Bangladesh regarding border issues, 101st amendment introducing Goods and Services Act (GST) 2016 which introduced “one nation, one tax” regime, and 103rd amendment providing for Direct Benefit Transfer to citizens by means of Aadhaar, and 124th amendment to provide for 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections in jobs and educational institutions. Laws to curb black money like the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill have been passed.
Important among social legislations are the Juvenile Justice Act allowing prosecution of juveniles apprehended for heinous crimes like adults and Acts relating to treatment of mental health patients, and those affected by HIV/Aids, and rights of persons with disabilities.
However, 16th Lok Sabha was as bad as the previous one in the number of hours it worked. Its record of 1,615 hours of work is second lowest after the 15th Lok Sabha, which wasted one-third of its scheduled time. It sat for 331 days which is 137 days less than the average number of days of Parliament sitting by previous full-term Lok Sabhas. Contrary to general criticism, the 16th Lok Sabha spent 32 per cent of its time on legislative business, which was higher than the average of other Lok Sabhas by 7 per cent. Legislative business has received due importance, but the time given for discussion is eaten by disruptions. Question Hour took 13 per cent of its time while 10 per cent went to Short Duration Discussion, and 0.7 per cent to Calling Attention Motions.
Noteworthy is that the Triple Talaq Bill and the Citizenship Bill actively promoted by the NDA government are set to lapse with the end of the last session. It will bring both gain and loss of votes to the BJP depending on its use as election propaganda material.
With more and more TV channels telecasting Parliament proceedings live and conducting political debates, citizens get opportunities to watch the performance of their Parliamentarians. Interruptions in both Houses are so common that the voters who have sent these members to the august body have started murmuring whether elections are held to choose the best obstructers. Time lost due to interruptions was 217 hours excluding the last session, according to Lok Sabha data. The tendency to stall Bills at the stage of introduction seems to have grown.
Absenteeism is another problem that voters have to fight. BJP MPs had the highest attendance whereas Shiv Sena MPs recorded highest participation in discussions and questions.
Election speeches, manifestos, and promises become meaningless if Parliament is converted from a place for deliberations on legislations, functioning of the executive, and other important public matters into a place for protests and demands. Salaries of members are hiked so fast and other allowances and perks are enormous and conducting elections are so expensive that voters have a right to expect full return for the money spent. Unfortunately, even voters are ready to tolerate and watch unruly scenes inside Parliament as an interesting scene in a TV serial.
Disciplinary action against unruly members is not likely to work, as in most cases all members of a party or even groups of parties join together under one leader. Increasing constituency pressure and preoccupation of Lok Sabha members especially from regional parties with regional/local problems are caused by closer interaction of voters with their MPs in coalition governments formed with a number of regional parties. The social base of MPs has been widened with the entry of more and more regional parties, but there is a danger of our democracy getting stuck with sectarian and territorial ties. This may cause regionalisation of the national Parliament compelling the government to take to the Ordinance route for vital legislations.
A suggestion to suspend members entering the well of the House for one week and inflict loss of sitting allowance for the period was mooted by the Lok Sabha Speaker Balayogi and leaders of some parties in 2001. This Speaker even evicted some members at times for rushing to the well and creating disruptions. But, as all parties were in the habit of disturbing the proceedings, disciplinary rules do not work.
Despite a good record of legislative work, what lingers in our mind is the unruly scenes in Parliament. This may lead to voter apathy — the worst enemy of representative system of democracy. –INFA
(The writer is former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)