As December 2016 winds down on the year, many report cards on 2016 will proliferate. But the one that will read the worst will be report card on Parliamentary performance in 2016.
Parliament and its long distinguished history of 64 years, beginning from 1952, was turned on its head in 2016. I have experienced Parliament for 10 years and attended it with regularity and 2016, surely, was its most wasted year as it was reduced to a mere shouting gallery.
Parliament has its three primary functions. First, to deliberate and legislate. Second, oversight of the executive and to ensure its accountability and transparency in governance. Third, oversee important independent regulators and scrutinise their reports tabled in Parliament. All three of its responsibilities were abdicated and was increasingly reduced to being irrelevant with the executive not requiring to rely on Parliament to conduct its governance.
The dangers and risks of this are far-reaching. In its functions of oversight of government and independent regulatory bodies, it does so on behalf of the people of India and giving up this responsibility means the much-required scrutiny is absent. While on its legislative role, the performance was patchy with some Bills getting debated but many getting passed with little or no debate or discussion. Legislations created with little or no discussion creates more problems than it intends to solve. The prime specimen of such legislations can be seen in the Information Technology Act passed in 2008 or the recently passed Aadhaar Bill. As the IT Act of 2008 during the UPA time taught us, when Parliament legislates under the pressure of time and a barrel of a gun pointing at it, invariably and inevitably poor legislations arise.
To quote Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Devesh Kapur, “The idealised view of Parliament, as a deliberative body, where all of the considerations relevant to legislation are aired and discussed and outcomes reflect the weight of the stronger arguments, is a far cry from reality in any setting. However, in the Indian case, the problem is more acute and has worsened in recent years. Parliament in the public mind is essentially a site for adversarial combat rather than of deliberative clarity. It is for this reason that disruptive adjournments have become main tools of Parliamentary opposition rather than reasoned argument.” This, in many ways, sums up 2016 and more particularly the Winter Session of 2016.
The Winter Session of 2016 has been one of the least productive sessions for both Houses in the last 15 years, with repeated disruptions on the issue of demonetisation of currency. While eight Bills were introduced in this session, only two were passed. Of which the Taxation Laws (Second Amendment) was passed amidst utter chaos and disruptions. What was also saddening is the fact that the Question Hour, which is one of the most powerful tools to hold the executive accountable, was also sacrificed repeatedly this year on the altars of disruption politics. According to PRS Legislative Research, as a result of repeated disruptions, in this Winter Session only two of the 330 listed questions in the Rajya Sabha could be answered orally. This has been one of the least productive Question Hour sessions for the Rajya Sabha in the last three Parliaments. While in the Lok Sabha only 11% of the questions could be answered orally this session. These are damning figures.
Parliament failed to introduce and pass even time-critical Bills like the important indirect taxation reform of GST, the Constitutional Amendment for which was passed after painful and complex political consensus building. The original deadline of implementing the GST was slated at April 2016 and now we are at a stage where even meeting the April 2017 deadline seems a bit of a stretch. These aren’t victimless disruptions as delays like these have a huge opportunity costs for our country.
As I had said during the 60th anniversary debate in Parliament, “the cynicism of our Parliament and Parliamentarians is at an all-time high. Our usual response to this is that it is media driven or middle class angst driven, or we use some other alibi to move the focus away from the message to the messenger who is delivering this message. I believe there are reasons for this decline in credibility—that go beyond corruption and insensitivity. It is the almost absolute disappearance of idealism to be replaced by a strange form of political pragmatism that is inconsistent with the thoughts, beliefs and views of our founding fathers.” Unfortunately, some of it still holds true.
Even the President and the Vice-President expressed their anguish over the disruption of Parliament in strong words. The Vice-President of India and the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, during his valedictory remarks, said, “The symbolism of dignified protests, so essential for orderly conduct of Parliamentary proceedings, was abandoned.” As Soli Sorabjee remarked in his recent piece, “If the sentiments expressed by our President and Vice-President Hamid Ansari as the chairman of the Rajya Sabha are not heeded, there will be terrible deficit in democracy, and consequently our democracy will be under siege.”
In summary, Parliament in 2016 was completely undermined as an institution in our democracy, by a strange kind of meaningless me-too politics of disruption. Parliament was reduced to a sporadic legislation passing body. It’s time for a real debate. It’s time for a real discussion on Constitutional changes that will outlaw disruptions that cripple Parliament’s functions as the Constitution didn’t envisage this kind of vacuum due to disruptions and responsibilities. These disruptions deprive MPs of their rights and responsibilities and further exacerbate the trust deficit between Parliament and people of India.
The author is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha