Intruders In, MPs Out: Is Security the Least of Our Parliament’s Troubles?

What makes Parliament even more dysfunctional is that MPs aren't allowed to vote their conscience.

4 min read
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The Opposition’s protests in Parliament led to the suspension of over 140 of its MPs for "unruly behavior,” from both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Both houses were adjourned for several days without doing any business.

Last week three young men and a woman breached Parliament’s security and caused a ruckus in the MP’s chamber as well as outside the building, shouting slogans such as "Long Live Bhagat Singh” and "No Autocracy.”

Instead of uniting our political parties on concerns about security, the incident started a political brouhaha. The Opposition claims it shows that young Indians are dissatisfied with the government’s policies. The government says the opposition is spreading anarchy and politicising the issue to regain ground after their recent drubbing in the polls.

The incident also shows how our Parliament has become a place for disruption and protests, and not much else. Parliamentary dysfunction is increasing with each passing year because its design has some serious, fundamental flaws.

A Question of Accountability

Take the notion of who is in control. Our Parliament comprises the President and two houses – the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – with the President holding the power to summon, prorogue, or dissolve either house.

But the President is nowhere to be found in Parliament except to make the inaugural speech. Our Constitution has made the President subservient to the Prime Minister.

This creates a circular problem of accountability: the Prime Minister is supposed to be controlled by Parliament, and not the other way around.

The PM is the leader of the majority in Lok Sabha, which elects the Speaker of the House and thus controls the House. When the majority is strong – as is the case now – the PM can also handpick the Vice President, the presiding officer of Rajya Sabha. So, in effect, Parliament is also subservient to the Prime Minister.

This circular problem was evident well before India adopted the British Parliamentary system. British constitutional scholar Ivor Jennings wrote in 1941, “The theory is that the House controls the Government. The truth is, though, that a member of the Government’s majority does not want to defeat the Government.”

Not only is the PM firmly in control of Parliament, but neither he nor his Cabinet are under any constitutional obligation to answer any questions in the house. The practice of MPs asking questions and ministers responding is based entirely on convention. Even in England, the British PM is not constitutionally obligated to answer questions in Parliament.

The frequent practice began only in 1961 under Harold Macmillan and is not explicitly spelled out in British laws.


Lack of Representation

Another basic flaw is that Parliament is insufficiently representative of our large and diverse nation, which makes it unsuitable for truly national discussions.

It under-represents the people when compared to other democratic nations, and it is lopsided in favour of the North. On average, an MP represents 2.4 million citizens, while in the US, that number is 748,000; in Pakistan, it is 576,000, and in Japan only 273,000.

Political scientists Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson estimate that based on the 2011 census, the number of MPs in the Lok Sabha should rise from 545 to 848. Uttar Pradesh should have 143 seats and Kerala only 20. The number of Lok Sabha seats hasn’t been revised since 1973.

What makes this under-represented Parliament even more dysfunctional is that MPs, under our anti-defection laws, are not allowed to vote their conscience. They are required to toe the party line.

India’s eminent constitutional scholar AG Noorani wrote that this "reduces legislators to bondsmen.” Under this parliamentary system, the Prime Minister is guaranteed a majority.

All this creates a fatal combination – an institution controlled by a PM, run by his handpicked presiding officers, with a guaranteed majority of MPs, who must vote along his party lines.

Parliamentary debates, therefore, become meaningless. History shows that our Parliament has been passing laws without debate for decades. Here are some examples:

  • In 1990, the Chandra Shekhar government passed 18 bills in less than two hours

  • In 2001, 33 bills were passed in 32 hours

  • In 2007, the Lok Sabha passed three bills in 15 minutes

  • In 2021, 20 bills passed without any debate.

The Lok Sabha doesn’t even sit as long as it used to; it sat for 121 days each year from 1952-70, but now the average is only 68 days.


Towards an ‘Elected Autocracy’?

Similar is the story with MPs’ suspension: the Speaker has exclusive discretion and does what the majority wants. The practice started in 1954 when Raj Narain – former Minister of Health and Family Welfare of India – was suspended from the Rajya Sabha; he would be suspended a total of four times.

In 1962, Congressman Godey Murahari was removed by the Marshal of the House. While there were 50 suspensions during the UPA rule, the NDA has already suspended more than double that amount. Last week, the Speaker suspended an MP for unruly behavior, but the man wasn’t even in the house at the time.

For decades now, we have been sleepwalking into an “electoral autocracy” – a label assigned to India in 2021 by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute. If we truly wish for a better democracy, we must fix our system’s fundamental flaws.

(The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Opposition   Constitution   Lok Sabha 

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