Five hundred and forty three Members of Parliament (MPs) have been elected to the 16th Lok Sabha as representatives of 1.2 billion Indians, and as torch bearers of people's hopes, will and aspirations. Nearly 60% Lok Sabha MPs--including our Hon'ble Prime Minister--were voted to Lok Sabha for their debut term. Contrary to popular belief, our MPs are primarily legislators entrusted with the responsibility of debating and casting their votes in favour of or against a proposed law, referred to as a Bill, or amendment to an existing law. The option to abstain from voting can also be exercised.
Article 100 of the Constitution of India provides for a decision on the fate of a Bill or an amendment by the majority of votes of MPs. However, the 52nd amendment to the Constitution--popularly known as the anti-defection law--provides for the disqualification of an MP if she or he votes against the 'directed' party-line. The stated objective of the anti-defection law was to combat the 'evil of political defections' that had plagued the Indian parliamentary system in the 60s and 70s, the most prominent example being the demise of the Morarji Desai-led Janata Government in 1979 on account of defection by the Charan Singh-led faction.
Perhaps the most remarkable casualty of the anti-defection law has been the 'conscience' call of individual MPs...
There is a general consensus that this law has essentially succeeded in comforting successive governments with political stability and immunizing them from intra-party rebellions. Nevertheless, big-ticket and high-stake defections are still prevalent as witnessed during the confidence motion won by the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government in 2008 when close to two dozen opposition MPs either voted in favour of the UPA or abstained from voting against wishes of their parties.
A silencer of conscience
Perhaps the most remarkable casualty of the anti-defection law has been the 'conscience' call of individual MPs, even on routine matters in Parliament. This law has, single-handily, usurped Article 100 of the Constitution, and practically left the fate of a Bill or an amendment in the hands of a select few in the top hierarchies of parties from both sides of Parliament benches. An MP has to mandatorily conform to the diktat of the party, even when the interests of her/his constituents--the very people who voted her/him to uphold their interests--are being side-lined. The destiny of a Bill is largely decided outside Parliament, after experienced opportunistic 'negotiators' from opposition parties attempt to seal a deal for their political bosses. If such negotiations fail, what usually follows is a prolonged, often hollow, opposition in Parliament.
Today, most MPs only follow--not by choice but by systematic design--the script written at the headquarters of their respective political parties.
Today, most MPs only follow--not by choice but by systematic design--the script written at the headquarters of their respective political parties. It is only apt that the person at headquarters entrusted with directing the MPs is officially called the Chief 'Whip'. The Whip decides: the dates during a session when an MP needs to be present in the Parliament, if an MP will be allotted a slot in the party's quota of time to take part in any discussion, whether an MP will say 'aye' or 'nay', and lastly which buttons an MP will press at the time of voting. During any debate or discussion, an MP from the treasury benches rises only to support any proposal or decision of the government, while one from the other side by default assumes a contrarian position. The only commonality between the two is unconditional praise for leaders of their respective parties. In the end, it turns out to be a game of 'wit and humour' to score brownie points at every conceivable opportunity, often dwarfing the necessity to discover consensus actionable points to overcome the plethora of issues concerning India's citizenry.
The proceedings in the House resemble a 'debating competition' where voices from the other side are prematurely discarded.
The most sacred institution of Indian democracy has evolved into a rigid hemi-sphere where any form of deviation from the official party stand is viewed as 'unholy' and treated with disdain. In the present Lok Sabha, the thumping majority of the principal party in the government has ensured that the proceedings in the House resemble a 'debating competition' where voices from the other side are prematurely discarded.
Only ministers matter
Almost always, the government, synonymous in the parliamentary system with the Prime Minister and his council of ministers, perceives its responsibility to only 'listen' to MPs and 'defend' the government's position. The executive, by definition, is accountable to Parliament. In reality, non-ministerial MPs--including those from the ruling side--do not have definitive means to hold the executive accountable.
Even if individual MPs raise valid issues or share thoughtful suggestions... it is extremely unlikely that they will receive any serious consideration from the government.
Often, Bills are passed without little or no discussion, and in any case, the party's stand is 'legally supreme'. Even if individual MPs raise valid issues or share thoughtful suggestions during the course of a debate on a proposed legislation, it is extremely unlikely that they will receive any serious consideration from the government. Similar is the fate of recommendations contained in countless reports prepared by standing committees comprising MPs across party lines. MPs, especially the sincere ones, spend considerable time and energy in the meetings of the standing committees deliberating, in detail, upon issues and pieces of legislation. However, the recommendations are not binding in nature and are usually not accepted by the government; no reasons need to be given.
Ask and ye shall get nothing
While an MP has the option to seek answers from the executive during 'Question Hour', their questions are usually met by vague and repetitive replies drafted by seasoned bureaucrats on behalf of individual ministries.
For every oral question or matter of public importance raised in 'Zero Hour' by individual MPs--mostly related to serious issues concerning her/his constituency--the minister's standard response includes acknowledging the existence of issue raised, informing the House that the ministry is seized of the matter and assuring a resolution.
[MPs'] questions are usually met by vague and repetitive replies drafted by seasoned bureaucrats on behalf of individual ministries.
The discussion on the annual Budget is a permanent feature of the first session of Parliament any given year. It spreads over a number of days accommodating possibly the largest number of MPs in a single debate year after year. Still, rarely does a suggestion or amendment proposed by an individual MP get favourably considered by the executive. MPs do have an option of proposing a private member Bill; however, not even a single Bill has received the approval of Parliament in the past four-and-a-half decades. Parliament is supreme in democracy; however, the ministers representing the executive are undoubtedly supreme in Parliament.
Is there a way out?
Now that we're the 21st century, can we move beyond employing century-old parliamentary mechanisms and procedures that were borrowed from across the world? There is ample room for improvisation and collaboration.
Instead of only seeking information, individual MPs can play a much more proactive role if they have a mechanism to recommend actionable inputs and suggest ideas pertaining to central government policies, schemes or any other domain falling directly under its control.
The government would greatly benefit from the wisdom and experience of individual MPs... All it would require is an additional hour, which can be termed as 'MP's Hour'.
This can be communicated to the concerned ministry 15 days in advance. An upper limit of one such intervention per-MP-per-week on rotation basis would ensure that all such recommendations can be taken up in Parliament. One minute can be allotted to the MP for making the recommendation, and two minutes can be taken by the concerned minister to inform the House whether the government is accepting or rejecting the MP's recommendation, briefly citing the reasons. All it would require is an additional hour, which can be termed as 'MP's Hour' and can begin at 10am on each day when Parliament is in session. The government would greatly benefit from the wisdom and experience of individual MPs. Restricted time would not leave any space for deviations from the facts of the topic. More importantly, the whole mechanism would enable definitive and regular participation of MPs in the House-- something which is completely missing at present and is mostly dependent on the whims and fancies of the party's office bearers.
MPs have eyes and ears on the ground, and it is high time that our Parliament gives its members a stronger 'voice'!
In a democracy, a Parliament cannot afford to endlessly 'regulate' the voices of MPs, nor can the executive continue to remain oblivious to the opinions-- derived from constant engagement with masses--of these representatives. Each MP represents over 20 lakh constituents who see their elected representative as a direct link with the government of the day. MPs have eyes and ears on the ground, and it is high time that our Parliament gives its members a stronger 'voice'!
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