Indian parties hold Parliament to ransom

The first two weeks of the ongoing monsoon session of the Indian parliament have been a complete wash-out so far with no work transacted. Since this session began on July 20, opposition parties have stalled work, protesting alleged corruption in the BJP and demanding that Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and chief ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan respectively step down from their posts.

Parliament spends national wealth at the rate of Rs 2 crore a day and yet refuses to function

Parliament spends national wealth at the rate of Rs 20 million a day and yet refuses to function

With the government unwilling to give in to the Opposition’s demands and the latter unlikely to end its protest – adding fuel to the fire of the latter’s intransigence is the suspension last week of 25 opposition Congress party members of parliament (MPs) for “persistent and willful obstruction” of proceedings – it does seem that this week, which is the last of the year’s monsoon session, will go by with little work done.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is blaming the Congress for the present deadlock.  However, it is only reaping the harvest of seeds it sowed when it was in opposition over the past decade, when it disrupted parliament frequently and for prolonged periods. As a result, just 61 percent of the term of the 15th Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, was “productive,” according to PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based non-profit.  Of the 328 Bills that were to be enacted during its five year tenure (2009-14), just 179 were passed.

In a parliamentary democracy, Parliament provides elected representatives with the forum to discuss and debate issues, ask questions and answer them. But in the world’s largest democracy, much shouting happens but little gets discussed or heard. Worryingly, several of the bills were passed with little or no debate. Thirty-six percent of the total bills passed were debated for less than 30 minutes and of these, 20 were passed in less than five minutes, PRS observed.

Question Hour, when MPs reply orally to questions put to them, is a major casualty of the disruption of proceedings. Of the 6,479 questions that were scheduled for oral answers in the Lok Sabha in the 2009-14 period, only 10 percent were answered. With 12 percent of queries answered, the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House, performed marginally better in this period.

Paralyzing the working of parliament is costing the tax payer dearly. According to official estimates, it costs the exchequer around Rs 250,0000 (US$38,934) per hour to run Parliament when it is in session. If a regular work day in Parliament is around eight hours, it means that roughly Rs 20 million (US$311,478) is going down the drain when no business is transacted.  Several key bills are pending resulting in policy paralysis.

Disruption of parliamentary proceedings has worsened over the decades. The quality of elected representatives too has fallen as has the quality of debate.  The right to protest is important for the health of a democracy as are debate and discussion.  There are rules of procedure for these, which some lawmakers seem to have little respect for as they charge into the well of the House to indulge in raucous slogan shouting.  As much to blame is the government for failing to consult and build consensus in drafting legislation.

Besides, disruption of parliamentary proceedings is more the outcome of petty point scoring rather than motivated by principles or concern over policy.

BJP parliamentarians are suggesting introducing a no-work-no-pay rule to discourage the opposition from disrupting proceedings. If pay, perks and daily allowances of opposition MPs are withheld for not contributing productively to parliament, shouldn’t the allowances of ministers and ruling party MPs too be held back for poor productivity? Besides, holding back their pay for attending parliament is not enough of an incentive to ensure good behavior.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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