By Mohd. Naushad Khan
The gradual decline of Parliament functioning in India has eroded the faith of the people towards the most important and sacred institution of democracy. Despite the fact that the Parliament has played a crucial role since its inception, what is worrying is the way it has functioned in recent years and as a result of it the perception of this institution and its influence have suffered a serious setback.
That India has a parliamentary form of government with the sole aim to provide functional and inclusive democracy appears to be superficial now because in practice the power of Parliament primarily rests in the hands of the cabinet headed by the Prime Minister.
In recent time, the process of sending bills, particularly the controversial ones, to the various committees of Parliament appears to have been deliberately avoided. The ordinance route, generally followed to avoid any kind of resistance by the Opposition, has further undermined the very functioning of the Parliament. Very recently the Parliament has withdrawn three controversial bills in the same manner it had passed them without any debate. We all know debate is the essence of a democracy and passing a bill in a haste without any debate is no less than undermining the spirit of democracy.
As per PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based organisation which monitors Indian legislative process, only 12 per cent of all bills passed by the Parliament in 2019, were referred to various panels. The figure was 60 per cent in the 2004-2009 Lok Sabha.
In the present Lok Sabha, 17 Bills were referred to Parliamentary Committees. But surprisingly not a single government Bill was referred to a committee. In the 16th Lok Sabha, only 25 per cent of the Bills introduced were referred to committees. However, this number is much lower than 71 per cent and 60 per cent in the 15th and 14th Lok Sabha.
John Dayal, a noted social and human rights activist who has watched and heard debates of the parliament for long years, while sharing his personal experience, said, “I’ve been 52 years a journalist, and have held a Parliament card for almost forty years, with Central Hall accreditation. Part of the joy, and much of the learning process, was by listening to debates. It was my good fortune to have heard some of the best parliamentarians of that generation speaking in the Rajya Sabha, which I covered for long years. And understanding the importance of discussions, the process through which government proposals, or Bills, eventually became law, or Acts, was in observing how members of the ruling party or coalition, and the combined opposition parties, representing myriad political interests, looked at the Bills carefully, identified clauses and sub-clauses that could impact their political constituency in small or big measure.
“Any point of suspicion, and the Opposition could get the government to send it to a select committee of Parliament which could examine it more minutely without the adversarial situation that was in the two houses of Parliament. At times, if not always, the select committees invited public objections, or interventions. This therefore was a multi-tier method of scrutinising and debating a government proposal for a new law, or its attempt to modify or amend an existing law. We must note that the procedure was not followed for each and every law. Mrs Indira Gandhi could be faulted on this more than once in her long years in office. But till recently, that was the norm. Even in the prime ministership of Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee.”
He added, “Although the first act of Mr Narender Modi in 2014 when he entered Parliament on the first day was to bow at Gate Number 1, his regime will be known for not adhering to hallowed parliamentary practices.
“The utter depth of this is seen in the manner in which the Farm Laws were first enacted, ramrodding them through the two houses of Parliament, and a year of a brave protest by the farmers at the gates of the national capital, they were withdrawn by voice vote.”
On the lack of debate on farm laws, he said, “If there had been a debate when the farm laws were enacted, members, especially those representing constituencies dominated by agricultural communities, could have explained their objections, and voiced their doubts and fears. Perhaps the government could have seen their point of view and modified the Bills. That, however was not to be. And in repealing the laws through voice vote, the government has once again denied members of Parliament, representing the people, to voice their points of view. These are cowardly acts of a government that does not want its actions to be questioned at all, that does not want to listen to the people, but insists on a dictatorial unparliamentarily route to enforce its will. The fact that the prime minister has never held a press conference but insists on a unilateral manner of communication is also very much a part of this habit.”
“The primary functions of parliamentarians in India include actively participating in the process of making laws and taking proactive care of the people of the constituency that elected them as members of the parliament (MPs). The MPs in India, like their contemporaries in other democratic countries, are failing as people’s representatives both in the law-making process and addressing the needs of the constituency,” said Praveen Rai, a Political Analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
He added, “The reasons for bills passed in Parliament sans careful deliberations and debates stems from: The sharpening of ideological divide and lack of consensus on most of the bills not only stalls civilized and meaningful debates, but also triggers frequent disruption of proceedings. However, the increase in MPs cutting across parties with criminal backgrounds and poor educational standards leaves little scope for debates on bills that require higher acumen.”
On how the government can do better, Chakshu Roy in his article, “Modi govt’s hasty passage of farm Bills shows there is no sanctity to law-making in India” published by The Print on 22 September, 2021, has reasonably argued, “The first step in strengthening the law-making process starts with the government. The machinery of the government has to be proactive and not reactive while making laws. This will allow the government to introduce its legislative proposals in time for comprehensive parliamentary scrutiny. The government will also be able to, then, inform Parliament of the timeframe in which it would like the House’s approval on its proposal. The government will also have to provide Parliament with supporting documents, data and analysis for MPs to be able to make an informed decision on its legislative proposals.”