Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

The reform of Parliament’s time disposition and parliamentary etiquette is urgent. Important policy matters are simply not debated at all and Bills and motions are often but cursorily discussed.

Stemming The Rot

More sittings for Parliament and some overdue reform could enable this august body to come to grips with real debate and issues.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 23 November, 2009

As Parliament reconvenes after a long hibernation, the proposal to have it sit for a minimum of 100 days per annum, as opposed to 145-150 sittings in the UK and US, comes not a day too soon. The parliamentary record in terms of business transacted has seen a steady decline over the decades. The number of annual sittings has shrunk and the hours devoted to serious business has diminished further on account of disruption, walk outs and forced adjournments.

While only a small minority of members might resort to unruly behaviour, Party leaders seem unable or unwilling to control their cohorts. The mikes are not automatically switched off, though it is publicity the rowdies seek. The cameras continue to whirr and the media delights in reporting the disorderly scenes even if parts of the proceedings are expunged. This only whets the appetite of political goons masquerading as parliamentary icons. The situation in the State Assemblies is, if anything, worse.

The reform of Parliament’s time disposition and parliamentary etiquette is urgent. Important policy matters are simply not debated at all and Bills and motions are often but cursorily discussed. The time given to Members to speak is grossly excessive and leads to long winded and repetitive and irrelevant discourse. Shorter time allocations would compel Members to be more focused and precise. The US Congress affords a good example of members being allocated barely three to five minutes on occasion and sharing this with party colleagues, and yet speaking to great effect. There is no interest in Private Members’ Bills and Resolutions.

Back benchers and independent members should be allotted more time to Overcome the tyranny of Party whips. The Committee system could be used more effectively too by allocating more time for scrutiny and discussion of legislation and reports and by calling more expert witnesses to give evidence not only on Bills but on issues of national importance, many of them of great complexity where informed opinion would be invaluable. Those that disrupt the House must be expelled and denied their daily allowances for the period of expulsion.

Serious national issues are seldom discussed. The total emasculation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, dealing with the Scheduled Tribes, has not attracted the slightest attention over decades. Annual Governors’ reports on the tribal condition are not written, as mandated, and if sent to Delhi are not discussed. The Government shelters behind the shabby subterfuge that no report can be placed before the House without an Action Taken Report which is either never prepared or endlessly delayed – with no consequences. This disgraceful dereliction constitutes a brazen violation of the social contract between the Indian state and the tribal people as enshrined in the 5th Schedule.

The same it true of the total contempt displayed towards the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and its Reports – if they are produced and presented at all, Who cares? Certainly not Parliament. It has no time for such trifles. And what is it that parliamentarians seek? An enhancement of their MP Local Area Development Fund to as much as Rs 10 crore per annum. While some MPs and MLAs have put these funds to good use, for all too many it is a source of patronage and makes for a cosy relationship with contractors and officials who form cabals and rule the roost.

Committee meetings away from Delhi have also become luxury tours with expenses on five-star hotels and cars billed to pubic sector undertakings on the pretext that State bhavans and guest houses are fully booked and not available.

And what could be more demeaning and illegal than to have the newly elected Congress chief minister of Maharashra, Ashok Chavan, announce at a public meeting that he is awarding a cash prize of Rs 5 lakhs each to the three constituencies that gave him the highest votes to ensure his recent re-election. What is this if not an ex post facto bribe and allurement to the electorate. If the prize money comes from the State exchequer it would be loot, amounting to public expenditure for private gain. If it is donated out of private funds then it must constitute an illegal electoral practice and also be added to Ashok Chavan’s election election expense returns, which might attract disqualification if it exceeds the permissible ceiling.

The new session of Parliament may see the return of the long-promised but aborted Bill to give 33 per cent reservation to women. Deliberations on this have been hijacked by irrelevancies such as reservations for other categories of women such as OBCs, minorities, et al. The simple answer would be to expand the membership of the Lok Sabha by half, by adding 277 Members, this number to be indirectly elected through a partial list system. Each party must be required to have ensure one third representation for women, whether through direct election or else though the List. This will not merely ensure requisite women’s representation but also a better quality of (ethical and intellectual) membership, especially through the List. Such a reform would enhance the quality of debate and expertise available for governance and legislation in an increasingly complex world.

It would also help if, as in certain European countries and the US, Ministers are appointed from outside the legislature. Any MP assuming office as a Minister would necessarily have to resign his or her seat. This would elevate the status of legislators and bring jmfm on par with Ministers. Such reforms may not be in the offing but could be set as a goal towards which the country might progress. Even today, a Minister may not be a Member of either House for up to six months before being elected. Therefore, the principle is there; only the period needs to be stretched.

The probability of structural reform in the party system appears likely. Coalitions will remain the order of the day for some time longer as more and more cohorts at the bottom of the social pyramid are empowered. But it is quite on the cards that the Left and BJP will splinter and more liberal elements on either side will gravitate to a new liberal left of centre and right of centre node, attracting smaller parties around each of them. This would still leave room for other lesser formations but future coalitions may be more stable if they are built around numerically larger core parties.

All of this will be events but more likely a process. The RSS Chief’s increasingly open and pointed interventions in its affairs suggest that the BJP may not hold for long, The tussle is not only personal but ideological with a section of the party opposed to hard core Hindutva and its divisive politics that could tear the country apart. A rapprochement with a reformed Pakistan could also catalyse change. The Left, equally, is played out and, whether in Bengal or Kerala, is divided and crumbling as recent reverses in both states suggest. The days of the Commissar are over.

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