A DYSFUNCTIONAL PARLIAMENT: POLITICAL COMPETITION LEADING TO THE DEMISE OF DISCUSSION AND DEBATE
Nothing much need be said as tohow dysfunctional our Parliament has now become. The blight has been a long
time in the making and Parliament has now become a place more for political
theatre than thoughtful consideration of the nation’s many problems.
The first Lok Sabha worked for almost 4000 hours while the 16th Lok Sabha
functioned for just 1615 hours.
Democracy is not just about an elected Parliament and periodic elections.
Democracy is pointless without debate and discussion. Democracy is a system of
government by compromises and accommodation. That is why it’s called a
reconciliatory system, where the myriad aspirations of individuals, groups,
regions and nations are sought to be reconciled towards a common good.
It is hence a government by discussion and debate, for the method of making
choices is by common consent and acceptance. A prime prerequisite for
democratic functioning is institutional order and coherence.
Unfortunately what we have been witnessing in the recent past is the collapse
of institutional order and coherence. Parliament is where these aspirations are
intended to be reconciled, and Parliament has become increasingly
Politics in India has been becoming increasingly adversarial and anything goes
as long as it accrues to the gains of the adversaries. Imagine a game of chess
where instead of two sides – black and white – we have one more side say in red
playing on a three-sided board. The objective of each of the players would be
to destroy the pawns and powers of the other sides and capture their kings. Now
complicate this a bit more. The rules of the game could allow any two sides to
combine for a certain length of time against the third or any other
combination. This game then gets very complex with colors switching sides at will
to make gains.
The Indian political system might very well have more than three colors. But we
can see three major sides in the political spectrum for now. These are the BJP,
Congress and the loose alliance of the ex-Janata Dal factions and the regional parties,
commonly called the third front.
From 1969 to 1989 the BJP (formerly Jana Sangh) and the precursor factions of
the Janata Dal used to combine against the Congress. The political and economic
goals of the three major groupings in Indian politics do not differ very much.
They are all committed to a raucous democracy and an increasingly populist
The evolution of our politics into a non-ideological political competition has
seen the demise of discussion and debate in Parliament. The expansion of 24X7
TV news channels and their vacuous talk shows aimed at garnering TRP’s rather
than spreading light has only accelerated this process.
Parliament still meets and passes bills and enacts laws, but most of this is
done without the debate and discussion they require and we expect. Even the
budget is barely discussed. The defence budget has not been discussed for years
now. Parliament even functions without quorums most of the time.
In this situation the political adversaries pick issues to stall important
political statements the ruling party is invested in. The GST Bill is a case in
point. The BJP opposed a GST as long as it was in the opposition. The BJP
states, including Gujarat led by Narendra Modi, were very vociferous in their
opposition. To the Congress then, the GST was a symbol of its commitment to the
reforms process. Now the sides have switched. The Congress is hoisting the BJP
on its own petard.
One has to look beyond sundry ambitions of individual politicians for this
dysfunction. There are serious institutional flaws in our parliamentary system
too. For instance, the opposition has little say on the agenda for discussion.
Our rules allow for somewhat stronger government control over the agenda than
many other parliaments.
The Speaker of the English House of Commons presides over the House's debates,
determining which members may speak, for maintaining order during debate, and
may punish members who break the rules of the House.
Unlike presiding officers of legislatures in many other countries, the Speaker
remains strictly non-partisan, and renounces all affiliation with his or her
former political party when taking office as well as when leaving the office.
Customarily, the House re-elects Speakers who desire to continue in office for
more than one term.
On the other hand, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives is an active
and partisan leadership position and the incumbent actively works to set the
majority party's legislative agenda.
The office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha is modelled after the English
Speaker. But in India, with its rather lesser regard for convention, the
Speaker continues to be a party hack and works closely with the government that
chose him or her to further the party’s political agenda. It is little wonder
then that the Speaker, despite the show of deference and frequent reference by
the MP’s, actually commands little authority to control the house.
On the other hand opposition members often feel stonewalled because of the
Speaker’s political affiliations. This is perhaps why the Lok Sabha ever so
often witnesses so much disorder and wilful disobedience.
This convention of having a Speaker from within must be re-examined and we
might be better served by having Parliament presided over by an eminent and
commonly trusted individual, perhaps like a retired Chief Justice, who might
bring a more enlightened view of right and wrong to the office.
Then there is the Anti-Defection Act that seriously limits free discussion by
muzzling inner party discussion and expression of dissent. This Act disrespects
the essential reality that Members of Parliament or the legislatures are
representatives of the people.
That they are members of a political party is only incidental. The elected
members are intended to represent and protect the interests of the people who
elect them and not that of a handful of leaders. It makes them subservient to
the whip on the pain of expulsion.
This tyranny of the whip has made MP’s marionettes that are forced to act
according to the wishes of the party leadership. Most party leaderships are now
vested within families and clans, and leadership is hereditary or
So where do we go from here? And where will we discuss and debate just that?