One of the most imperative questions which engaged the drafters of the Indian constitution was the nature of the Executive and its relation with the Legislature. Undoubtedly, the decision of the Constituent Assembly on the form of Government was substantially influenced by the political background of country and the practice and traditions evolved during the British rule. Dr. Ambedkar in his exhaustive and authoritative statement on the nature and character of the Executive while introducing the Draft Constitution in the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948 made it clear that the Parliamentary System which prevailed in England will be best suited for our system, because the assessment of executive here is both daily and periodic unlike non-parliamentary system where it is only periodic. Parliamentary democracy therefore implied that Parliament will hold the executive accountable for all its decisions. This may be done using various methods including debates on Bills, asking questions to ministers during Question Hour, and parliamentary committees. Unfortunately, discourse is much on the diminishing role of Parliament and the increased dominance of the Executive i.e. a dominant executive and a compliant legislature.
The history of recent past records a gloomy story of a parliamentary system where every party has contributed to its decline. Members of Parliament across the parties have disrupted the time allotted for the Question Hour and demanded Presiding officers to adjourn it, or simply put, scrap it on that particular day. We now see further low in parliamentary system when current government decided to scrap question hour session altogether in monsoon session.
A bicameral system of legislature is not only an intra-organ control device which keeps a constant check on the Parliament and its government not to pass any unjust law. The Modi government's minority status in the Rajya Sabha was perhaps the biggest check and which not only slowed but even stopped its important legislative plans during NDA 1.0. The improving numbers in the Upper house along with partisan outlook and approach of presiding officers have strengthen government's ability to pass crucial bills without any proper discussion and scrutiny. There is progressively a sense of deep cynicism with the very process of parliamentary debates or at least the way it is being captivated by the executive at this moment. Presiding officer's decision to put three critical bills to a suspicious voice vote in spite of the clear rules of procedure that if voice vote is challenged then division will be made, once again contaminated the essence of parliamentary democracy. Ensuing ruckus, suspension of members, passing of crucial bills amid opposition walk-out and without discussion are not a good signal for parliamentary democracy.
Diminishing role of parliamentary committees to monitor on-going governmental operations is another cause of anxiety. There is a sharp decline in referring bills to parliamentary committees. The bills are being tabled, debated and passed without sufficient legislative scrutiny. The previous Lok Sabha witnessed 25% of bills referred to parliamentary committees which was a sharp drop from 71% under the second term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. This means that we mostly get political debates taking place in Parliament ignoring the clause wise expert debates. Non-referent of bills to committee sends the message that bills tabled by the government are either perfect or it is so urgently needed that they do not require the input of a committee. But this also validates the dominance of executive over Parliament which is again not a good sign for a Parliamentary System of governance where executive functions under the supervision of Parliament.
MPs do not pay due dedication to the work of standing committees and spend most of their time in their constituencies politics and give more importance to social functions, marriages, funerals, as well as attend inauguration functions and partake in other local political events. They are able to do this because of the lack of political party mechanism for accountability of their respective MPs and communication of their performance or non-performance to the voters in the constituencies from which they are elected. Legislators and members of Parliamentary Committees who happen to be legal practitioners, incessantly practice law before courts and earn substantial money leaving their Parliamentary work secondary. After all this, MPs are left with no time to read the material sent by a committee secretariat?
According to data shared by the chairman, only 18 out of the 80 RS MPs attended all the meetings of their committees. This number looks dismal when you consider that eight out of the 18 are chairmen of these committees. The attendance of Lok Sabha (LS) MPs in these committees is equally gloomy. Out of the 168 Lok Sabha MPs on these committees, only 18 attended all the meetings. Congress leader and Member of Parliament Mr. Rahul Gandhi, who is a member of the parliamentary standing committee on Defence did not attend even a single meeting out of total 11 meetings since its formation. The lackadaisical attitude of MPs is perhaps linked to the impression created and importance given to parliamentary committees. The absence of MPs has a larger impact, as each member of a committee represents 25 of his parliamentary colleagues in these meetings. One-year tenure of parliamentary committees is one of the reasons for its non-serious nature. A relatively longer tenure will help MPs in committees to gain expertise in subject areas as many MPs experience a knowledge gap while dealing with specialised subjects. Former Speaker Mr. Somnath Chatterjee in fact suggested (2005) to associate external experts to support the committees in analysing legislations and policies but political leaders did not welcome this progressive idea. Another reason of this decline is seen in the passive role played by the chair of the committee. No mechanism for a regular assessment of the performance of the committee has been put in place. If the chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha meet the chairman of committees at least once in two months to discuss issues related to the committees, there will be a significant improvement in their functioning. The reports of these committees being a public document are publicly accessible but the process of scrutiny and consultation that members had with other government officials and experts which is a key aspect of legislation, remains concealed from public. Members defend secrecy of deliberations under "parliamentary privilege" to defend secrecy of deliberations. The fact that committee proceedings are not subject to Right to Information Act also raises doubt on the possibility of extra-legal forces with hidden agendas affecting the process of legislation, with the public unaware of it.
The manner in which Parliament is functioning seriously undermines the concept of 'constitutional democracy where the executive is held accountable by the legislature, which represents the will of the people. This is not only the hallmark of parliamentary democracy but a component of the basic structure of the Constitution of India. All opposition parties must rise above and come forward for initiating a constructive dialogue in a constructive manner.
Views are personal only.
(Author is a Professor of Law & Registrar at National Law University Odisha)