Parliament’s recently-concluded budget session should help to resolve the controversy which has come to be raised every few years: should India continue to be a Parliamentary democracy or should it switch over to the Presidential system? The session haseloquently demonstrated the strength of the Parliamentary form of Government and its superiority over the Presidential even as it has once again highlighted the weaknesses of the system as practiced (and disfigured) by us. It hasalso underlined the urgent need for reform, which has been overdue for long. Scandalously, the budgetarydemands of more than Rs.21,000 crores were voted by the Lok Sabhawithout any discussion when the guillotine was applied. These included Ministries like Industry, Planning and ProgrammeImplementation, Textiles, Food and Civil Supplies, Communications, Steel and Mines, Surface Transport, Tourism, Healthand the entire range of science subjects comprising Atomic Energy, Space, Ocean Development and Electronics. True, the system of applying the guillotine is not new. But the fact remains that little has been done so far to tackle the mounting problem.
Our Parliamentary form of Government was able to show its superiority over the Presidential form when important issues were raised in both the Lok Sabhaand the Rajya Sabhaand debated, notwithstanding the unhelpful and, according to some Opposition leaders, “obstructive attitude” adopted by the Speaker of the Lok Sabhaand the Chairman of the Rajya Sabhaand those occupying the Chair in their absence. We had, in the past few weeks, first the Fairfax affair, then the submarine probe ordered by Mr. V.P. Singh, and, finally, the Bofors field-gun deal. Significantly, these issues were taken up day after day. There was no stopping once the news broke in the Press. All three issues proved in succession what isdescribed in classical terms as “the daily and continuing” accountability of the Government to Parliament. The Government was pushed into the dock and, thanks to an independent press, forced to answer questions in full view of the country’s ultimate sovereign — the people. Such probing is generally not possible under the normal residential system, which provides only for periodic assessment of governmental responsibility.
The Government’s answer left much to be desired on occasions. They were wishy-washy and evasive. Nevertheless, they showed the intrinsic power of the Parliamentary system which made the founding fathers of the Constituent Assembly opt for it. Any one among the 541 members in the Lok Sabha and 240 members in the Rajya Sabha can put a question to the Prime Minister or any other Minister and demand an honest answer. (Remember, the British Minister, Mr. Profumo, was forced to quit office and Parliament not because of his affair with Miss Christine Keeler, but because he told a lie in the high temple of democracy — the House of Commons). Questions can be put both during the Question Hour, with which the House begins its sitting each morning or immediately thereafter, during the Zero hour. In fact, the Question Hour is a vital part of the system and has been aptly described as a hyphen which links Parliament to the Government and provides for the accountability of the Ministers and the administration through probing queries and supplementaries and, in case of unsatisfactory answers, through Half-an Hour discussions.
Question Hour, which is also described as the ‘sacred hour’, is the most powerful instrument available to the Opposition and, indeed, to all private members belonging to the ruling party. It enshrines Parliament’s right to know and through it the people’s right to information. The crucial importance of the right to information is not adequately grasped. The right to information (which, incidentally, the President is seeking to assert in his own case) carries the right to question and, by implication, to control and direct. The Question Hour in its present form is unique and practiced only in Britain and India. It is a part of the daily sitting of the House. Yet it is set apart as an hour itself because Parliament’s first prerogative is to get information. It is held from 11 a.m. to 12 noon and precedes the “Zero hour” — or what is called Public Business in the Commons. Importantly, the rules of the House ensure that the Government does not find any excuse to avoid questions and conveniently slip out of the dock. The rules provide that there “shall” be a Question Hour. In Britain, too, it comes right at the beginning.
Ample opportunity for the daily and periodic assessment of ministerial responsibility is also provided under the Parliamentary system through the devices of Adjournment Motions and Notices of Calling Attention. These enable information to be elicited and lapses to be exposed in Governmental policies. (That the tool of adjournment motions has come to be blunted by over-zealous and needlessly protective Speakers over the years is another sad story; more a little later.) Specific matters can be taken up through motions on matters of urgent public importance, private member’s resolutions and other substantive motions. Significant occasions for review of administration are provided by the discussion on the Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address, the Budget and the Demands for Grants and debates on particular aspects of governmental policy or situations. Discussion can also take place on annual reports of Departments. Government lapses in specific fields can be discussed or local problems aired through cut motions. In extreme cases, the Government as a whole or individual Ministers can be censured or a motion of no-confidence brought forward.
Unfortunately, Parliament’s right to information and undertaking a periodic assessment of ministerial responsibility has come to be increasingly curbed in recent years notwithstanding loud protestations to the contrary. Adjournment motions seldom get admitted because of what I have described a little earlier as the increasing inclination on the part of the Presiding Officers to be “protective” towards the party Government — and because of the hangover of the colonial past. Prior to Independence, adjournment motions came to acquire an element of censure. This was so because there was no provision then for a motion of no-confidence. The Congress leaders consequently used the adjournment motions to censure the Government. The attitude should have changed after the dawn of freedom. But it has not. Worse. Time was when the Speaker at least mentioned in the House the notices of adjournment motions received even when these were disallowed. Now, as shown by the last session, there is no mention at all of most of the adjournment motions brought forward. The members are merely told by the Speaker: “Come and see me in my Chamber.”
Not only that. Parliament’s last session showed a sharp and distressing decline in the Speaker’s attitude to the Opposition, constraining its leaders to bring forward a motion of no-confidence against him. The Opposition was barred by the Chair, time and again, from asking even one clarification after the Prime Minister or other senior Ministers, such as the Defence Minister, had finished speaking on important, controversial issues. The Chair may have had its own reasons for doing what it did. But its action went wholly against the basic concept and conventions of Parliamentary democracy which provide for an orderly form of Government by discussion and debate. Nehru graciously yielded even when any Opposition member sought to interrupt him in the course of a reply to a debate to elicit clarification or information. But this seldom happened during the last session, barring some honourable exceptions. Again, in Nehru’s time, no Congress MP was permitted, much less encouraged, by him to heckle or shout down Opposition members. But this, too, is a thing of the past. The last session saw the “halla” (shouting) groups have a free run of the House.
Now the question of guillotine. Parliament has undoubtedly a right to apply the guillotine on the budgetary demands of Ministries because of the constraints of time. The reason? The Finance Bill has to be voted by April 30. Nevertheless, Nehru cut down resort to the guillotine to the minimum by securing the cooperation of all sections of the Lok Sabha as a dedicated Leader of the House. In 1960 and 1962, for instance, discussions in regard to the following five heads only were guillotined: Atomic energy, Department of Parliamentary Affairs, Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and the Vice-President’s Secretariat. The number shot up three times to 15 in 1967 (a year after Mrs Gandhi took over as Prime Minister), to 24 in 1975, 25 in 1980 and 26 in 1983. Nehru stood for a debate on the functioning of all Ministries and departments. At one stage, he accepted a suggestion for a discussion on the guillotined ministries and departments on the basis of their annual reports presented to Parliament — after the Finance Bill was voted. Unfortunately, no Prime Minister has devoted thought to the matter after Nehru.
Parliament, as I said at the outset, has undoubtedly shown its strength during the last session by the success with which it was able to raise important issues — as also by the exit of Mr. A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, Minister of Programme Implementation, because of an adverse finding by the Public Accounts Committee. But this by itself is not enough. There is an urgent need in our Parliament today for the boldness and initiative shown by the Commons ten years ago. The Commons then set up a Select Committee on Procedure to make recommendations on the more effective performance of its functions. The Committee met for two years and produced seventy-six recommendations with but one aim: “to enable the House as a whole to exercise effective control and stewardship over Ministers and the expanding bureaucracy of the State for which they are responsible.” Parliamentary control over the Government in Britain today is exercised by twelve Committees in addition to the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Parliamentary Commissioners (The Ombudsman). A similar Select Committee should be set up in India without further delay. The Committee continues to grow even after 300 years. Our Parliament must also grow. —INFA