Winter Session Delay: Should Govt Have Power To Summon Parliament?
MPs and Presiding Officers of both houses have routinely asked for a higher number of sitting days for Parliament.
November is a hectic month for the Central government. The ministries are busy preparing their proposals and responses to the Parliament, whose winter session begins this month. Their preparations kick into high gear with the announcement of the exact dates of the session.
These dates are decided by the Cabinet committee on parliamentary affairs and then announced by the President. So far, the dates of the winter session have not been announced.
Media reports suggest the session might begin in December after the campaigning for the Gujarat Vidhan Sabha elections end.
Deviations in the Parliament’s Schedule
Our Parliament does not have a fixed calendar of sittings.
In 1955, the Lok Sabha had recommended a schedule of dates for each session of Parliament. According to this, the winter session of Parliament was to commence on either 5 November or the fourth day after Diwali (whichever is later) and conclude by 22 December. While the cabinet had agreed to this recommendation, this was not followed.
In practice, the winter session usually begins in the middle of November and concludes by the third week of December. However, this is not the first time that a session of Parliament has deviated from practice.
In 2013, the winter session of Parliament started on 5 December. It was a session that was marred by disruptions on issues like the creation of the state of Telangana and had to be cut short by two days.
In 2008, there was technically no separate winter session of Parliament.
It was the year in which the government had won the trust vote on 22 July. The government did not end the session of Parliament to avoid another trust vote in the Lok Sabha. So the session continued, and the Lok Sabha met for a few days in October and then met again on 10 December. The winter session of 2003 also started behind schedule on 2 December.
Vidhan Sabha elections have also shaped the parliamentary calendar. For example, in 2011, political parties agreed to cut short the budget session so that they could campaign in the five states going for elections.
The modality of convening a session of Parliament is specified in the constitution. It gives the government the power to convene Parliament and provides that there should not be a gap of six months between its sessions.
Issues Related to Convening the Parliament
This raises two issues:
- It results in the government deciding when Parliament will meet to hold it accountable for its functioning.
- It does not provide predictability in the calendar of the highest law-making body of the country.
When the constituent assembly was debating this provision, some members pointed out these infirmities.
They proposed that the Parliament should be in session throughout the year. They also suggested that in case a session of Parliament was not convened by the President, the presiding officers of the two houses should be empowered to convene the session.
Their suggestions, however, did not get enough support to be included in the Constitution.
The two issues related to the convening Parliament have plagued us for the last 60-plus years.
The executive branch is accused of convening the legislature mostly to pass essential financial and legislative business. In addition, parties in opposition accuse the government of trying to avoid uncomfortable debates in Parliament by not convening it. Finally, the lack of a fixed calendar of sittings brings uncertainty to the legislative process.
Taking a Cue from Other Democracies
Other democracies have bypassed these issues by specifying that their parliaments will be in session throughout the year. The Parliament in the United Kingdom and the Congress in the United States do not have three sessions a year.
Instead, they meet throughout the year with short breaks built into the calendar. Being in session throughout the year also lets them plan their parliamentary sitting calendar in advance at the beginning of the year.
It also has the added advantage of ensuring that the institution of legislature does not have to depend on the executive for convening itself.
While democracy might have its challenges in Pakistan, its constitution has strong provisions for convening its Parliament.
It specifies that the Pakistani Parliament will meet for a minimum of 130 days in a year. It also specifies that if 1/4th of MPs in the lower house demand that their house should meet, then the Speaker will be obligated to convene Parliament.
The constitution of Myanmar also has a similar provision.
Higher Number of ‘Sitting Days’ Not Enough
Members of Parliament and Presiding officers of both the houses have routinely advocated for a higher number of sitting days for Parliament. But increasing the number of sitting days of Parliament itself will not be enough.
What needs to change is that the power to convene the legislature should no longer be in the hands of the executive. If this does not change, the working of our legislatures will be completely dependent on the government.
(This article was first published on 15 November 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives in light of the delay in Parliament’s winter session which is yet to be announced. In the recent Congress Working Committee meet held on 20 November, Congress President Sonia Gandhi accused the Modi government of sabotaging the winter session on “flimsy grounds”.)
(The writer is head of Outreach, PRS Legislative. 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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