It is difficult not to be dismayed by the manner in which the Congress party with a mere 44 MPs tried to ensure external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj wasn’t even able to reply in Parliament to the charges levelled against her—her half-hour speech was all but drowned out by sloganeering by one cheerleader with the rest of the MPs joining in as a chorus while party chief Sonia Gandhi sat through without one attempt to restrain them. How can there be a discussion in Parliament if there is to be no reply on it? The washout of an entire session of Parliament due to the Congress demand that senior BJP ministers and chief ministers first resign is another symptom of the paralysis that has come to grip Parliament in the last decade or more. The flip side, of Parliament passing the budget—in March 2006—without even a token discussion of the grants in committees, is another form of this malaise though the ruling party may have welcomed it then. None of this is to absolve the Narendra Modi government for getting its Parliamentary strategy wrong by initially not being willing to engage in a constructive debate over various Bills such as the GST or the land one or to send them to Parliament’s committees—ironically, its misguided pursuit of the land Bill, instead of allowing states to come up with their own Bills, gave the disparate Opposition a flag to unite under.
The issue, however, goes beyond the BJP and the Congress, there are systemic changes required. Former RBI Governor and MP Bimal Jalan has talked of how the anti-defection law has spawned the splintering of political parties and has suggested that small parties leaving coalitions be subject to the same re-election rule. The whip, similarly, has prevented members from voting according to their conscience and, therefore, reduces all votes to a farce whose outcome is determined by the number of seats the ruling party/alliance has—much better to use the whip only for money Bills. Combine this with BJD MP Jay Panda’s suggestion to have clear rules for running Parliament as opposed to the Speaker’s discretion today—a private MP’s Bill, if you please, needs Presidential assent before it is even introduced! So, as in the UK, he says, have certain days set aside where the Opposition decides the agenda; if 50 MPs sign for it, a topic must be discussed; if 100 MPs sign, the discussion must be a voting one. The idea is not to weaken the government, it is to inject vibrancy into Parliament. If, instead of heckling, there was a genuine vote on Swaraj/Raje/Chouhan, followed by a vote, the people and the government would have a genuine sense of how Parliament felt—while the government wouldn’t fall even if it lost the vote since this is not a money Bill, it would have very powerful consequences. Right now, as Panda says, with no votes on most discussions, governments simply smile while Opposition MPs make their point—also, if MPs knew there would always be a discussion on issues enough of them felt were important, there would be that much less of a justification for the kind of behaviour we saw earlier in the week. The US anti-filibuster vote, similarly, could be adapted to ensure against holding up of Parliament and constant heckling of MPs. And to prevent frivolous no-confidence motions to make fragile coalitions fall, Panda suggests the German system of a positive alternative where voting out a party/coalition has to be accompanied by one voting in another. There are many more suggestions by many others, the important thing is try them out, to breathe life into the Parliamentary system that often seems to be serving little effective purpose.