Arshad Shaikh looks at the ways and means through which we can assess the performance of our lawmakers. Parliament frequently encounters logjams and opposition walkouts with an unsavoury display of unruly scenes becoming the new normal. Is the attendance of our MPs and number of bills passed in a particular session the right parameter to evaluate the performance of our elected representatives? The issue requires examining legislation and the legislature in a broad perspective and subjecting them to critical monitoring by both the public and the media.
A simple equation to calculate labour productivity is output upon input. So for example, a firm generates production worth Rs 100,000/- and employs 10 workers to generate that output, then the productivity per labour would be Rs 10,000/-. Similarly, the formula for calculating absenteeism is to find the number of unexcused absences in a given period and divide it by a given period to get a ratio of absenteeism over that period like a month or year. It is the endeavour of every business to increase productivity of labour and reduce absenteeism of employees, as it is the key to its financial success. The same concept applies to educational institutions, charitable organisations or not for profit organisations.
Having understood this, what would you think about an organisation consisting of some of the most powerful and influential people of our society churning out productivity figures of 47.9% and 70% absenteeism? Well, these numbers come from India’s temple of our democracy – the Parliament of India. Specifically the numbers are that of our Rajya Sabha MPs in terms of their productivity in the recently concluded winter session and their absenteeism the last two years. According to data compiled by PRS Legislative, the Lok Sabha productivity was only 14% in the Lok Sabha and 22% in the Rajya Sabha in the last monsoon session of Parliament.
Another shocker – in this winter session, the Lok Sabha utilised just 66% of its scheduled time of ‘question hour’ while the Rajya Sabha could manage 38% and 60% bills were passed without any legislative scrutiny. In the 17th Lok Sabha, only 13% of bills that were passed were referred to review committees. This percentage is the lowest in the last 15 years.
Surprisingly, these numbers do not cause any major outrage or any concerted efforts to salvage the situation. Therefore, what is the way forward and how should the people of India convey their anxiety to their lawmakers?
All MPs (Members of Parliament) enjoy certain immunities for the effective discharge of their duties as lawmakers. According to the Inter Parliamentary Union – “The concept of parliamentary privilege (freedom of speech) has been defined as the protection members of parliament enjoy from legal action resulting from an opinion expressed or vote cast.”
Two Trinamool Congress MPs served a breach of privilege notice against former Chief Justice of India and Member of the Rajya Sabha, Ranjan Gogoi. The former CJI recently told a television channel in an interview when asked about his poor attendance in Parliament: “Social distancing norms have been enforced, they are not being observed. The sitting arrangements, I don’t find very comfortable. I go to the Rajya Sabha when I feel like, when I think there are matters of importance on which I should speak. I am a nominated member, not governed by any party whip. Therefore, whenever the bell rings for the party members to come, it does not bind me, I go there of my choice and come out on my choice… I am an independent member of the house.”
Records of the Upper House show that Justice Gogoi has an attendance of 10% since March 2020. It appears that absenteeism is directly linked to the attitude of the lawmaker and the seriousness the lawmaker attaches to the responsibility of being an MP.
MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY
There is also a growing trend by the current Opposition to block the proceedings of Parliament to make their voice heard and as a mark of protest against what they feel as ‘unjust’ ways adopted by the ruling party. However, they resort to sloganeering, marching into the well of the house, throwing balls of paper at the Chair and creating what the media terms as ‘unruly scenes’ and ‘unparliamentarily behaviour’. Things came to a head on the last day of the last Monsoon Session. According to our Vice President and the Speaker of the Rajya Sabha, M Venkaiah Naidu – “Some Opposition MPs climbed the table, waved black cloth, threw files, and tore down papers and pushed security staff and other members of the house.”
Twelve Opposition MPs were suspended but in the next session (winter) for its entire duration with the Chairman saying that “they had shown no remorse”. The suspension again led to more opposition walkouts and the blocking of proceedings.
One must note that the trend to stall Parliament is not exclusive to the present Opposition. The ruling party (BJP) followed the same practice when it was in the Opposition with the UPA government in power. So now, when the ruling party preaches the Opposition about minimum decorum and parliamentary behaviour, it is essentially a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Also, those heading the party in power and the treasury benches cannot be absolved of one-upmanship, pushing the opposition to the brink and presenting the house with a ‘fait accompli’.
The main grouse of the Opposition was put forth quite succinctly by TMC MP Jawhar Sircar in an article for the Wire where he stated quite boldly: “The Winter Session that has just ended was also deliberately devastated by declaring on the very first day that 12 members of the Rajya Sabha were suspended for the entire session.” This act was in the hallowed tradition of absolute highhandedness and quite unprecedented. It served his purpose and the opposition was caught in the cleft, for it could either tamely accept this stinging humiliation, the legality of which was questioned, or disrupt the proceedings and be accused of gross ‘unparliamentary behaviour’.
THE ROOT CAUSE OF THE PROBLEM
If absenteeism, productivity and the passing of laws without any legislative debate are the main problems confronting our national legislature then we should understand that it is a reflection of the political culture that has evolved in our country and taken to its extreme by the current dispensation. The concept of a supreme leader was cultivated and established by the Congress. The BJP has allowed the same concept to morph to the level of according a cult status to their supreme leader who commands near-divine status and commands unquestioned subservience.
Genuine inner-party democracy is lacking in nearly all mainstream parties who rely on the projected popularity of their biggest leader among the masses whose greatness is measured by the number of votes he/she can pull in the hustings. However, the problem is deeper. The entire ecosystem of our electoral system is based on a process where ‘money and muscle power’ have become its currency and dividends are accrued to those who are experts in sycophancy of the great leader and becoming part of the coterie of the top leadership.
Moral values and basic principles that govern integrity and probity are seen as obstacles to the path of fast-track growth within the party and a ‘man of principles’ and self-respect is seen as a liability and a misfit in the existing political environment. The greatest paradox is the ‘whip culture’ followed by all political parties who swear by personal liberty and freedom wherein party members may “lose the whip“ or be expelled from the party if they vote against the party policy or according to their conscience. Hence it has been rightly said that “democracy is a system in which heads are counted, not weighed”.