The Continuing Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in India
When one steps inside the Parliament premises, right from the entrance point, where the statue of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar stands resolutely looking at the oval structure in front, to the corridors of the Parliament Library Building, the Annexe building and the main building – the Parliament House – one cannot help but notice the sheer abundance of posters and flexes shouting “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav” into the face of every onlooker. The 75th year of India’s independence as a nation should rightfully be celebrated with splendour at the highest legislative body of the country.
However, for those who have been witnessing the working of the Parliament from close quarters over the last few years, the cruel irony of this proud celebration of the mahotsav (festival) within the Parliament building is not lost. For, if there is one institution whose functioning has been curtailed the most and which has been lowered the most in stature in recent years, it is our Parliament. Though this is a charge that has been leveled many times by Opposition political party members, without going into the politics of it, it is worthwhile to take a look at some data relating to the Parliament’s performance to back this assertion. All the data, unless specified otherwise, has been sourced from the Statistical Handbook 2021 published by the Union Parliamentary Affairs Ministry last month.
The percentage of bills referred to Parliamentary Committees has drastically reduced from 71 per cent in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14) to 27 per cent in the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19), and to only around 13 per cent since 2019.
Parliamentary committees: One of the ways in which our Parliament ensures due deliberation and consultations with all relevant stakeholders before a bill is tabled is through the workings of its many Committees. Bills, once referred to a Committee, are scrutinised in detail, views from all concerned stakeholders are sought, and a proper report is submitted taking into consideration all such views. In most cases, the functioning of our Parliamentary Committees, owing to being closed-door and out of public view, have been non-partisan and factual.
As per data by the non-profit organization PRS Legislative Research, the percentage of bills referred to Committees has drastically reduced from 71 per cent in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14) to 27 per cent in the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19), and to only around 13 per cent since 2019.
Ordinances promulgated: The provision for promulgating ordinances, as per Article 123 of our Constitution, is applicable only when “immediate action” is required. Needless to say, this provision has been excessively misused of late. Between 2004 and 2014, 61 ordinances were passed at an average of around six ordinances per year. After 2014, more than 80 ordinances have been passed in eight years, at around ten per year.
Between 2004 and 2014, 61 ordinances were passed at an average of around six ordinances per year. After 2014, more than 80 ordinances have been passed in eight years, at around ten per year.
The above are issues relating to government bills and government business, but the scope of Parliament is much bigger than that. It is also supposed to work as a check on the working of the Executive. There are multiple parliamentary devices given to Members of Parliament to ensure this accountability is maintained. Let us see how the current government fares on allowing this accountability to exist:
Short duration discussions held: Matters of urgent national/public importance can be raised on the floor of the House as a short discussion under Rule 193 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha/Rule 176 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Rajya Sabha. This is mostly used by the Opposition to hold discussions that might put the Government on the back foot.
In the 14th (2004-09) and 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14), a total of 113 short duration discussions were held. In the 16th (2014-19) and 17th (2019-present) Lok Sabha, that has declined to 42.
Calling attention: This is another important Parliamentary device, using which a Member can raise a matter of urgent public importance and draw the attention of the concerned Minister, and the Minister has to reply to the concern raised. In the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, 152 calling attention notices were allowed. In the 16th and 17th Lok Sabha, this declined to 17.
Half hour discussion: Under Rule 55 of the Lok Sabha Rules/Rule 60 of the Rajya Sabha Rules, a discussion for half hour on any answered question can be raised by a member, if the member feels more clarification/discussion is needed on the reply given by the Minister. In the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, 21 such discussions were held. After 2014, only five of these have been held.
In the 14th (2004-09) and 15th Lok Sabha, a total of 113 short duration discussions were held. In the 16th and 17th (2019-present) Lok Sabha, that has declined to 42.
Assurances implemented: The Minister, on any issue raised by a Member on the floor of the House, can give an assurance – a pledge that the issue raised by the member will be addressed and necessary action will be taken in that regard. Between 2004 and 2014, 99.38 per cent assurances were implemented. After 2014, this has dropped down to 79 per cent, with 2021 seeing the lowest ever record of less than 30 per cent assurances being implemented.
All these devices are used by the Opposition members to question the government on its functioning. That all these devices are not functioning like they used to, shows a deliberate stifling of any and all kinds of criticism and pushback from the Opposition.
Deputy Speaker post lying empty: For the first time since Independence the post of Deputy Speaker in Lok Sabha has been lying vacant for about three years. By convention, the post of Deputy Speaker is given to an Opposition member. Media reports claimed that Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party had been offered the post, but it refused to accept it unless the demand for giving special status to Andhra Pradesh was met. Other reports claimed the Biju Janta Dal was offered the post, but even that did not materialise amidst growing hostility between it and the Bharatiya Janta Party in the Odisha State Assembly. Most other Opposition parties (barring these two and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, with a single Member in the Lok Sabha) have been criticising the government much more aggressively. This raises the question: is the post being kept vacant by the government to have a more favourable hold over conducting the business of the House?
In the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, 152 calling attention notices were allowed. In the 16th and 17th Lok Sabha, this declined to 17.
Denial of entry to press: If one goes around the oval upper balcony of the first floor of the Parliament building, and stands facing the famous statue of Mahatma Gandhi on the lawn, they would be standing in front of the Press Trust of India room of the Parliament. Again, the irony hits hard, in that even journalists are being denied entry into the Parliament premises during the sessions. Many have protested against this attempted ban on the media. Like the statue of Dr. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi’s too, solemnly looks on.
In the 14th and 15th Lok Sabha, 21 half hour discussions were held. After 2014, only five of these have been held.
Our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is ridiculed and vilified at every instance nowadays, was an exemplary Parliamentarian who gave the institution its due respect. He attended the sessions regularly, and sat through Question Hour even when his Ministries were not being discussed. In the Constituent Assembly, Nehru had said, “…we are functioning on a world stage and the eyes of the world are upon us and the eyes of our entire past are upon us. Our past is witness to what we are doing here and though the future is still unborn, the future too somehow looks at us”.
Between 2004 and 2014, 99.38 per cent assurances were implemented. After 2014, this has dropped down to 79 per cent, with 2021 seeing the lowest ever record of less than 30 per cent assurances being implemented.
We are that future, and it is time for all of us to look back on our country’s foundations and return to the path shown by the founding fathers. In the 75th year of Independence, having a healthy and functional Parliament that allows debate and discussion is the only mahotsav worth having – a mahotsav called Democracy.
Soumyadeep Chatterjee is a policy researcher and a former LAMP Fellow.
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