School students across India are taught, as part of their social studies lessons that, among others, Parliament has two major functions: Making laws, and keeping the government accountable. But in the last year that I have been working closely with a Member of Parliament as a legislative researcher, I’ve learnt that this is far from the truth.
The Parliament of India, unfortunately, neither makes laws, nor does it actually fulfil its function of keeping the government accountable. This is not the case for one particular government or party, the very system is structured in such a way that it eats into the effectiveness of the Parliament.
In my view, among others there are five major problems with our legislature as it stands today.
1. Parliament only passes laws
Unlike in many other democracies, like the US, the Indian Parliament does not make laws - it only passes them.
In India, there is an overlap of the executive and the legislature. It is the executive (the Cabinet) in India that conceptualises, drafts and brings in laws to the Parliament. The Parliament here plays the role of a rubber stamping authority which merely passes, rejects or amends a Bill.
Since the ruling party has a majority in the Parliament, most of the time there is in fact no question of rejecting a Bill. Nor is there scope for an MP’s amendment being accepted, unless the government is open to the suggestion.
And while MPs do have an option to bring in a Private Member’s Bill, this tool has been reduced to a show piece in the Parliament today. In fact, not a single Private Member’s Bill has been passed by the Parliament and made a law since 1968 - Mr Tiruchi Siva’s Transgender Rights Bill came closest, back in 2015, when the Rajya Sabha passed it. But when the Bill came to Lok Sabha, it was blocked by the ruling party.
2. MPs have no discretionary power while voting in the House
Even when it comes to voting on Bills to approve or reject them, MPs have little power on the floor of the House.
The anti-defection law - the tenth schedule of the Constitution of India - says that any MP who defies the party can be disqualified. No MP can vote for or against a Bill, or even abstain from voting, if what they want to do is against what the party whip has ordered them to do.
3. The mystery of the Question Hour
The Indian parliament has in its armoury various weapons to question the executive and hold them accountable. Among them, is the Question Hour. It is the hour in the Parliament where the MP’s can question the government and the government is bound to reply.
Except, not everyone actually gets to ask questions, and not every question asked actually gets answered.
Question Hour has several structural as well as procedural problems which pull down its effectiveness. First the structural issues: Every MP in Lok Sabha can submit a maximum of 10 questions per day, which means if the session is 22 days long, the MP can submit 220 questions to the government. But in a day, only 250 are answered. It is to be noted that a few organisations have started listing MPs on the basis of the number of questions asked. This has led to a rat race on who asks the most number of questions, rather than who asks the most important and pertinent questions in national interest, resulting in decreased quality of questions asked.
Secondly, the manner in which questions are selected to be answered has perplexed the best of MPs in India till date. It is believed that there is a random ballot of names followed by clubbing of similar questions submitted by MPs.
A good analysis on this mechanism by a young researcher published in Huffington Post explains how collusion of few MPs leads to their questions getting clubbed, thereby increasing the probability of their question being selected. Therefore even after pumping in ten questions per day, it is a matter of great luck and some clever collusion which helps an MP get more number of questions selected.
4. The stock answer syndrome
The irony however is that even after so many obstacles, when questions are selected, it is observed that Ministries either have standard answers, or somehow manage to negate the controversial ones.
For example, when an MP asked about the cost of printing new notes of Rs 500 and Rs 2000 in the Rajya Sabha, the Minister in his reply stated details about money supply and all other arrangements made but did not answer the question.
(Source: Lok Sabha, factly.in)
Also, in many cases the Minister replies saying the information is being collected and will be laid on the table of the house. It is nowhere mentioned as to when the information will be laid. One such example is given below:
(Source: Lok Sabha)
One cannot understand why the I&B Ministry needs more than 60 days to collect the profit and loss of Doordarshan, which falls under its own control.
5. Will the Standing Committees please stand up?
Over the years, the Standing Committees’ impact on holding the executive accountable has deteriorated due to various issues. Firstly, the number of bills that are referred to the committees has reduced over the years. During 2016, just 6 of 31 bills that were introduced (19%) were referred to committees. During the period of the current Lok Sabha, around 31% of all bills have been referred to committees. This figure stood at 71% in the last Lok Sabha.
Secondly, the Members of Parliament have little in terms of research support and other resources to perform well in their respective committees.
While committees are places where MPs can bring in their own individual ideas to make legislation better, party loyalty usually plays a role here too. The lack of transparency in what goes on inside the committees leaves the committees themselves unaccountable to the people.
Yes, there are instances where the Standing Committee made several amendment recommendations and the Cabinet has accepted them all. Similarly many MP’s take the committee meetings very seriously and raise critical points and seek clarification from the government. However, the fact of the matter is that Standing Committees definitely do not have the kind of impact a Senate committee in the U.S would have.
The author is a Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament Fellow, 2017, and currently works as head of research in the office of Lok Sabha MP Rabindra Kumar Jena.
(Note: Opinions expressed are the author's own, and do not reflect the view of his employer.)