Whenever the thought of Indian independence was contemplated by the west, nobody gave us a chance to survive as a nation. The entire world thought we would perish soon after independence. A British higher official, John Strachey, had once remarked in 1880 that India can never be unified owing to its fragmented ethnicities. Winston Churchill felt Indian leaders were men of straw who weren’t yet ready for independence, and India will be lost if they take up the offices. Their pessimism emanated from the fact that there is not a single instance in the entire history when a colonized nation has managed to evade a chaotic transition after being set free. There was bloodshed in Vietnam and Korea after their liberation. Nations of the former Soviet Union are still reeling under civil wars (Tajikistan & Kazakhstan civil wars). African nations are still bearing the brunt (Hutus v/s Tutsis massacre).
But to everybody’s surprise, India, despite being the most diverse nation, not only managed to survive the transition but has done it with bare minimum friction and is celebrating its 75th year of Independence. The credit goes squarely to the Parliament that stood tall amidst the transitionary turbulence. It remained the fulcrum of nation-building and shielded our republic from a slew of challenges like poverty, regionalism, wars, secessionism, language issues, diversity, social backwardness, etc. Before discussing how it kept the wheels of our republic intact, let us take a short detour to understand its historical evolution.
The Indian Parliament, which is comprised of the president of India, Rajya Sabha, and Lok Sabha, was formally institutionalised after the first national elections of independent India in 1952. Its roots can be traced back as deep as the Indian Councils Act of 1861 and the subsequent acts that followed. Legislative councils that followed the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms,1919 envisaged gradually developing representative institutions involving the natives. However, it was only after the passage of the India Act of 1935 that the presence of elected Indian representatives in the legislative councils became significant. However, the transfer of power to the Indian elected representatives still remained a mirage. After the independence, a Constituent Assembly of India was constituted to prepare the Constitution of India, which also worked as a legislature. However, in 1950, with the task of preparing the constitution being accomplished, it ceased to exist as the constituent assembly and continued to serve as the provisional Parliament of India from Jan 26th,1950, till the formation of a new parliament following the first general election.
Fulcrum of the Republic
Our constitution envisages a pivotal role for the Parliament. Our national polity is entirely centred around the institution of the Parliament. Hence our democracy is labelled “Parliamentary democracy”.
- Representation of people’s will: The fundamental basis for democracy is the idea of consent, i.e., the legitimacy, approval, and participation of people. It is the collective will of the public en masse, that decides the government of the day. How does the individual play a role in electing the government? One way of doing so is through participating in the elections. People would elect their representatives to the Parliament, and then these representatives of the people would, in turn, elect the government. In this sense, people, through their chosen representatives, choose the government and also control it. Parliament effectively houses the collective aspirations and will of the people. So, the Parliament as it stands in Delhi is nothing but the mirror-reflection of the people of India.
- Elects the National government: As we have discussed above, Parliament is the institution and the place where the national governments are formed. And these governments have huge sway in deciding the future course of the nation. So, effectively, it is the people themselves, through the institution of Parliament, who decide the future course of the governance. Similarly, it as an institution brings the downfall of the governments that don’t reflect the will of the people.
- Debate, dialogue, and deliberations: This is one of the vital roles assigned to the Parliament by the constitution. Basically, Parliament is a conglomeration of diverse ideas, viewpoints, and ideologies. It is the place where people’s representatives from various corners of the country share a common platform to put forward the issues of their respective constituencies, any part of the nation, and other national issues. Then the Parliament provides for a debate on the issues put forward in the House, and an exchange of views takes place. The concerned minister, while responding to the debate may address the House and make assurances to the House regarding steps that will be taken to do the needful. Also, the parliament factors in the opinions of outside experts and the civil societies in the deliberations through its committees.
- Law formulation: The primary function of the Parliament is to pass laws. The bill has to pass through either House before being assented to by the President. Parliament can exercise its legislative powers over the central and concurrent list of the seventh schedule of the constitution. Usually, subjects of national interest such as defence, railways, customs, etc., are placed in this these lists. It has been passing numerous statutes for the welfare and development of the people. Simultaneously, it has also been amending or repealing laws that have become obsolete.
- Ensuring Executive Accountability: This is one of the bedrockof parliamentary democracy. Under Article 75(3) of our constitution, the executive (Council of ministers) is collectively responsible to the Lok Sabha, failing which it has to resign. Thus, the Parliament, particularly the Lok Sabha acts as checks & balances upon the executive through several mechanisms such as Question hour, Calling Attention Notices, Half an Hour discussions, Adjournment Motions, and Motion of Confidence and No-Confidence, apart from discussions on the Budget and Presidential Addresses. Besides, there is the all-pervading role of Parliamentary Committees, as a microcosm of Parliament, in ensuring executive accountability. They scrutinize activities and expenditures made by the government and expose the discrepancies, if any.
- Guardian during the emergency: Whenever India slips into a crisis due to external invasions, internal armed rebellions, or our sovereignty has been threatened, Parliament assumes a special omnipotent role and takes appropriate measures to help the country tide over the crisis. Even during the President’s rule in states, Parliament assumes a salvaging role to restore the constitutional scheme of things back in the states. So far, we have witnessed three national emergencies and numerous presidents’ rules. India had coped with every political crisis, thanks largely to the fatherly role played by the Parliament.
- Passing budget: This has been another significant role of the Parliament in shaping the welfare, development activities, and the growth trajectory of the nation. The budget has to be passed by both the houses of the Parliament after being scrutinised by the parliamentary departmental committees. Usually, the budget is passed after thorough debates and deliberations by all quarters of the House. No amount can be withdrawn from the contingency fund of India without the authorisation of the Parliament.
- Power to re-arrange state boundaries: Constitution has vested the Parliament with the power to re-arrange the boundaries of the states and carve new states out of the existing states upon due consideration of the demands made by the local communities. Since the independence, Parliament has carved out more than 25 new states to accommodate the growing dissent among the local communities for the want of autonomy. This has helped the nation to address the aspirations of every community without compromising the national integrity.
A republic has no meaning if it stops at merely providing a universal adult franchise. How effectively the elected candidates are working, how accountable they are to people, how legitimately they are exercising their authority and power, how efficiently are they expending public resources, how cordially they are taking care of people, and how visionary they are in curating the growth trajectory of the nation, are the things that add substance to the republic credentials of any nation. This is where Parliament is applauded as the fulcrum of the republic. Parliament has inherent mechanisms to ensure that people’s representatives don’t go astray against the will of the people.
Are the spokes of the fulcrum coming apart?
The reputation of Parliament has steadily declined over the last two decades. When we discuss the reasons behind this anomaly, a distinction needs to be made between factors bringing the downfall of Parliament as an institution and the factors behind the downfall of the processes that go into the making of Parliament itself.
Decline of parliament as an institution
In the present times, parliament is renegading from playing the role that the constitution envisages it to play. Few of its failures are;
- Eroding executive’s accountability: The CJI Justice N.V. Ramana’s recent act of publicly lamenting over the inappropriate passage of bills underscores the sorry state of affairs of our parliament. The executive’s accountability to the Lok Sabha under Article 75(3) has been the bedrock of the parliamentary form of government. However, over the past two decades executive has been getting away without being accountable to the house, or the house has been failing to hold the executive accountable. Increasing resorting to ordinance route, cancellation of the question hour during the pandemic, passing of the budgets without deliberations, stamping normal bills as money bills to bypass the Rajya Sabha, government’s decision to bypass the standing committees while passing the bills, etc. have eroded parliament’s ability to hold the executive accountable. According to the PRS, the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-2019) had sent only 27 percent of the bills to be referred by the standing committees, in contrast to 71% of the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2014). Moreover, 76% of the recent budget was approved without any discussion. Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha discussed bills for an average of only 34 minutes and 46 minutes, respectively, before passing them in the last concluded session. The recent fiasco of the farm bills is a classic example.
- Haphazard working of the houses: There has been a steady decline in the working days and working hours of the parliament over the years. On average, parliament sat for about 120 days per year during the first two decades after the independence, quite in contrast to around 60 days in the recent past. Even most of these days end up in ruckus created by the opposition parties. PRS remarks that the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) lost 16% of its scheduled time to disruptions, while the 15th Lok Sabha lost 37%.
- Majoritarianism: Unfortunately, much of the business of the parliament happens under the grip of the government, right from its commencement to its adjournment. This leaves little room for the independent members and members hailing from other parties to voice out their grievances. There are many occasions when the government of the day has breached the conventions with impunity as it enjoys the majority in the house. The government calling off the question hour during the pandemic is one such example.
- Marginalized role of Rajya Sabha: Due to the manner in which the Rajya Sabha elects its members, the government of the day cannot be complacent about enjoying the same support that it enjoys in the Lok Sabha. Hence, they often try to bypass the Rajya Sabha route by resorting to ordinances and Money bills as the Rajya Sabha wields no power in controlling these two. Also, Rajya Sabha gets overpowered during the joint session by virtue of its numerical minority vis-à-vis Lok Sabha.
Decline of processes that constitute parliament
What is worrisome is the fact that not only the parliament is wilting away as an institution, but also its constitution itself is increasingly becoming questionable. Let’s see the reasons behind it.
- Electoral process: The founders of our constitution have adopted the first-past-the-post system. This results in majoritarianism where electoral minorities couldn’t find their representatives in parliament and their voices are hardly heard. In other words, it’s a monopoly of the majority.
- Criminalisation of MPs: The present Lok Sabha has over 50% of MPs with criminal cases filed against them. Association for Democratic reforms survey notices that the chances of winning for a candidate with criminal cases in the Lok Sabha 2014 elections were 13%, in contrast to 5% for candidates with a clean record. This results in Parliament turning out be the avenue for criminals to project their muscle and money power.
- Election of Speaker: The very manner in which the presiding officers of the houses are elected is mired in controversy. With speaker invariably coming from the ruling party, speakers in the recent past have been abusing the chair in the best interests of the ruling party. As the speaker wields a great amount of power in the house, the ruling party is indirectly ruling the roost in the parliament.
- Lack of inner-party democracy: The MPs belonging to any party, by virtue of the anti-defection law, lose their individual voice and stand while voting on any issue. This is the antithesis of representative democracy, as MPs no more represent the views of their constituency but of their party.
While the former set of drawbacks stifles parliament as an institution, the later ones shatter the pillars of the institution.
However, in addition to the above-mentioned woes, the parliament is also waging a battle against several impending challenges. Still a vast portion of the Indian populace is illiterate. And when it comes to political illiteracy, a majority of Indians fall in this bracket. This results in the public getting swayed away by the rhetoric and emotional appeals than by the logic, rationality, and the real issues they are riddled with. This reflects in persons of low calibre flooding the parliament, hampering its sanctity. Also, with growing independence and stature, states are increasingly asserting more autonomy which may jeopardise the powers of parliament. As more and more subjects revert to the state list, there may be a decline in the role of parliament as the policy formulator. Further compounding the threats, the constantly boiling regionalism may pose threat to the parliament as a fulcrum of the integrity of our republic. There is a litany of other challenges, such as language issues, external threats, regional inequalities, secessionist movements, etc., that parliament may have a hard time contending with.
The Resurrection of the Shrine
The disintegrating fulcrum needs an overhaul. A lot of these recommendations may sound pedantic, aimed at disciplining MPs. But, the purpose of the resurrecting measures isn’t to regiment MPs but rather to restore the waning sanctity of what is regarded as the shrine of democracy.
- Inculcating discipline through statute: There should be a statute mandating the minimum number of working days, working hours, and the attendance of the members on the lines of Odisha’s legislature, as recommended by the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution’ (NCRWC). There should be a clearly spelled out norms in the statute to evict the chaotic members without leaving the decision to the discretion of the presiding officer.
- Strengthening the parliamentary scrutiny: It should be made binding upon the house to dispatch every bill to the standing committee. Parliamentary committees should be provided with enough research support, adequate resources, and powers at disposal. Similarly, there should be a minimum time prescribed for the deliberations upon any bill.
- Downsizing the powers of the speaker: The speaker should be divested of the extraordinary discretion that she currently enjoys. Decisions upon issues like anti-defection, stamping the bill as a money bill, deciding on admission of the no-confidence motion, etc., should be outsourced to external agencies like the judiciary or some specially constituted bodies.
- De-criminalisation of the Parliament: Parliament is the place where laws take birth. There shouldn’t be any place in such Parliament for those who breach the law. At least those MPs against whom the charge sheets have been filed should be barred from entering the Parliament to restore its sanctity and lead the nation by an example.
- A composite electoral process: The best way to represent electoral minorities in Parliament is to have a hybrid of the First-past-the-post system and the proportional representation system. At least, the idea is worth the experimentation.
- Strengthening the Anti-defection law: The “aaya ram gaya ram” should dread the law. So, the law has to be amended to refer the matter directly to the judiciary & set a time frame for a swift judgment. They should be debarred from holding any of the constitutional posts in the future so that they do not make a mockery of the representative democracy.
- Empowering the opposition: The opposition should be handed the authority to decide the business of the house for at least two days a week. Empowering them with little more decision-making power will result in more discussions and fewer disruptions. This will also ensure that Parliament is not held hostage to the quirks of the government of the day.
While the government is planning to expend 971 crores in constructing the new Parliament building, we should be cognizant that it will remain a mere structure if we do not reform it in the first place. Reforms must emanate from within to prevent Parliament from becoming a rubber stamp. The suggested reforms aren’t herculean and can be executed just with the stroke of a pen. But, for the pen to move, the public should be vigilant and hold their representatives accountable. Parliament has served well for many decades, without an iota of doubt. But it began to crumble over the past couple of decades. Hence, it needs an urgent overhaul to extend its life as the fulcrum of our republic and to restore the faith in the world’s largest institution of democracy – The Indian Parliament.
- IJCRT1893327 pdf
- The role of the Indian Parliament – The Hindu
- The Decline of the Parliamentary Process in India – The Leaflet
- Chapter 3 Why Do We Need a Parliament.pdf (ceodelhi.gov.in)
- Employment News
- The Indian Parliament as an Institution of Accountability (upenn.edu)