Edit & Opinion

Parliament Abdicates Control Again

Parliament’s recently-concluded budget session has not received the critical attention it deserves. Not many of our people have cared to remember that they themselves are the masters and to ask: Has the new Lok Sabha functioned well and carried out its responsibilities honorably? Did it open a new chapter and arrest Parliament’s distressing decline over the years? Many found hopes and expectations were raised by the new Lok Sabha, notwithstanding its hung character. Sadly, these have not been realized. In fact, if the truth be told, Parliament declined further during the session. Neither the Government nor the Opposition benches covered themselves with glory even though the last hour ironically saw both sides indulging in mutual back-slapping for “a successful session”. True, the House voted the budget and also four Constitution Amendment Bills during the long session. But that by itself is far from enough. Infinitely more important is the basic vigour and vitality of Parliament.

Parliamentary democracy, as we all know, is a civilized form of government.  It provides for rule by discussion, debate and consensus. Some of us saw the absence of a clear majority and the hung character of the new Lok Sabha as a blessing in disguise. We remembered the havoc played with the House by the brute majority enjoyed by the Rajiv Gandhi Government in the last Lok Sabha. Time and again, the Congress-I Government rode rough-shod over the Opposition ignoring one basic fact of life: it lacked a majority mandate even though it enjoyed a massive majority. (Remember, the Congress-I got less than 50 per cent of the total votes polled! Many, therefore expected the new House to function with greater responsibility and revert to discussion and debate. However, this did not happen. Instead of discussion and debate, we had a great deal of dictation. The House was repeatedly held to ransom by leaders belonging to both sides of the House asserting: “We shall not allow the House to proceed until …..”)

In one sense, the Lok Sabha once again made a sham of parliamentary democracy. Once again? Yes. The last budget session of the last Lok Sabha made a mockery of the system. I said so on the floor of the House in my maiden speech on the President’s Address. I told the House that I had had the privilege of watching the Lok Sabha “from the Press Gallery above for almost 35 years.” I was, therefore glad to get an opportunity “to tell how I and friends up there felt about the conduct of the House…” I then went on to add: “I am sorry to say that over the last two decades the system has come into great disrepute and we have made a sham of democracy.” A former Congress-I Minister, Mr. Janardhan Poojari, rose on a point of order to protest “No member, Mr. Speaker, should use offensive expressions about the conduct or proceedings of Parliament.” But the point of order was over-ruled by the Speaker once I argued: “In the last budget session, the House voted more than Rs.54,000 crores without any discussion. If this, Mr. Speaker, is not sham, what else is sham?”

The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Mr. Upendra, stated on the last day: “We have transacted very momentous business in this session, including passing the Budget and many Constitution (Amendment) Bills. We discussed the demands of as many as nine Ministries, three times more than what had done last year….” A few members seated behind Mr. Upendra cheered. But there was no occasion for any applause. On the other hand, the remark called for someone to interject “not enough not enough” or even cry out “shame, shame”, considering Parliament’s abject abdication of its control over the Treasury, namely the Government’s spending. There is no gainsaying that Mr. Upendra worked hard and amiably in discharging his thorny task of running the House on the basis of a consensus. Nevertheless, one fact stands out. In one fell stroke of the guillotine, the House voted over Rs.39,000 crores and of the people’s money relating to the expenditure of 29 Ministries and Departments from the Consolidated Fund of India without any discussion!

Parliament’s greatest strength and utility lies in its power over the treasury. The first major battle of democracy was fought in Britain on the question of the right of a King to impose taxes on his subjects at will. The people won at the end of a long and hard struggle and the world saw the birth of a fundamental canon of democracy: no taxation without representation.” (The American War of Independence was also sparked off by the same basic issue.) The principle is strictly enforced in all democracies. In fact, Britain and other democracies have over the past two decades taken several initiatives to strengthen Parliament’s control over the purse. The House of Commons has had for the past ten years 14 Standing Committees in addition to 11 earlier Committees, such as the Public Accounts Committee, to exercise greater Parliamentary control over the Treasury and the government as a whole. In sharp contrast, our Parliament’s control over the national budget has continued to slip year by year.

Mr. Upendra can certainly plead: “We wanted all the Ministries discussed. But the main Opposition prevented us from doing so, blocking proceedings time and again.” The Congress-I, no doubt, stalled business repeatedly as part of its “government bashing”, a phrase Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and his whiz kids enjoy using. But the ruling party could still do two things to mend matters in the short term and over the long haul. The Janata Dal, together with their supporters, the BJP and the Left Front, could straightway undertake (prior to the monsoon session) what Nehru was prepared to do, agree to a discussion on the guillotined Ministries by ad hoc committees on the basis of their annual reports presented to Parliament. Mr. Upendra and his party could, thereafter, provide for proper Budget Committees for the future. The ruling party and its friends (popularly called “crutches” by the Congress-I MPs) must understand that Parliament has not only the right but a bounden duty to see that the public money is spent well and not wasted.

Regrettably, the record of the Janata Dal in regard to the introduction of the Committee System is rather disappointing, nay dismal. The Rajiv Gandhi regime took a historic step last year towards adoption of the Committee System. The Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business were amended to provide for the formation of three Standing Subject Committees — a Committee on Agriculture, another on Science and Technology and a third on Environment and Forests — to ensure greater control over their functioning and spending. Curiously, however, there is no sign yet of any of the three committees, prompting some veterans to ask: Is the Government having second thoughts? Not only that. On March 20 last, the Rules Committee recommended the appointment of seven more Standing Subject Committees, including those on Finance and Planning, Defence and External Affairs, Home Affairs, Commerce and Industry. But there is no movement on this overdue recommendation either to the chagrin of many of us.

The Speaker, Mr. Rabi Ray, introduced during the session innovation for regulating the zero hour. Members were allowed (with advance notice) to make the points on which they felt greatly agitated. The innovation deserves to be welcomed, though it took away from the zero hour much of its fun, excitement and heat. It puts into practice another long forgotten parliamentary canon: the Opposition must have its say, even as the Government has its way. But the Speaker, a liberal socialist, will have to take care that the zero hour does not become unduly long. Towards the end, it tended to take more than an hour and a half each day, injecting uncertainty in regard to the consideration of official business and eagerly-awaited ministerial statements. Perhaps, the zero hour could be strictly limited to a maximum of one hour and only such issues allowed to be raised as are permissible under the rules. In fact, it is time to consider allotting to the Opposition parties some specific number of hours each week for raising suo moto such issues as they desire.

One question remains: Can the decline of Parliament be halted and, indeed, reversed? Personally, I feel this should be possible considering the anxiety of the Speaker, Mr. Ray, and the Deputy Speaker, Mr. Shivraj Patil, who earned well-deserved kudos from all sides for his remarkably good handling of the House, to nurse Parliament back to robust health. Both, for instance, strongly favour the Committee system and are eager to give all sections of the House, including smaller groups and independents, an opportunity to make the Lok Sabha proceedings more representative of the nation. Much in regard to the final outcome will depend upon Mr. V.P. Singh, who is not only the Prime Minister but also the leader of the House, and the leader of the Opposition, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi. Sadly, the performance of both left great deal to be desired. In the final analysis, the Lok Sabha’s functioning cries out for overdue heart-searching and urgent reform. Its decline (and even more so of the Rajya Sabha) has continued unchecked for much too long. —INFA

 

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Inderjit

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