June 2014

Dear Prime Minister

SubParliamentary Reforms in India

Please accept my hearty congratulations on becoming the 14th Prime Minister of India. There was an amazing election battle between many parties in the last 6 months and we have passed the election phase and elected a government. We, the people of India, have great expectations from you and your government. I thought I would write a series of letters to you on the great challenges that face our country. In these letters I would make a few suggestions on how the challenges can be tackled but my suggestions are not as important as your solutions to these challenges. We could have a discussion on how Indians can tackle these challenges; a discussion that was missed by us in the last six months.

I am writing my first letter on the need for parliamentary reforms in India. You are of course aware that you and your council of ministers are answerable to the people of India through the parliament. In that sense, the parliament is your boss. I am sure that you would agree that for the health of Indian democracy, we need to make the parliament more effective.

I understand that the Members of the Parliament (MPs) are expected to legislate effectively, frame and formulate laws for the country, examine the budget and debate over the expenses of the government, hold the government accountable and above all, represent the interests of their constituents. Unfortunately, over the past few years, the Parliament has lost its accountability to the people of India and people have lost faith in this great old temple of Indian Democracy.

How have the recent Lok Sabhas performed?
Dialogue, discussion and debate are key things that need to be done inside the Parliament. From the first Lok Sabha in 1952 to the third Lok Sabha in 1967, each house sat for an average of 600 days and 3784 hours. The conduct of the proceedings and quality of debate was of high standard. Lately, we have witnessed a steady decline in the number of sitting days and working hours of the Parliament. The 14th Lok Sabha sat for 1738 hours and the 15th Lok Sabha sat for a mere 1,338 hours.

The success rate of passing the bills was relatively high earlier. The 1st and 2nd Lok Sabhas passed more than 300 bills, and with a lot more debating. The 5th Lok Sabha passed more than 450 bills. The figure has declined quite dramatically and the 15th Lok Sabha has recorded only 177 bills to its credit in the last five years of which 36% were debated for less than thirty minutes. Just recently, the interim budget was passed without any discussion and a demand for grants in 2013 for 16.6 lakh crores, was passed without any discussion!

These numbers are surely shocking and our country requires urgent parliamentary reforms. I have collated a few suggestions on how to improve the functioning of the Parliament and I am presenting them to you. I wish to hear your solutions and would be very happy if my letter is only the starting point for a discussion.

How can we deal with the lower number of sitting days?

“The government enjoys the right to decide when the Parliament shall convene and to limit the number of sitting hours”

The President convenes the sessions in accordance with the advice of the Council of Ministers. To me, it seems equivalent of deciding when your boss comes to office. Do you think a fixed schedule announced in advance would be a better idea? And a provision should also be made that each Member of Parliament who fails to record an attendance of at least 70% should be immediately disqualified. This would help in promoting more accountability and higher attendance in the House, which is a serious point of concern in the Indian Parliament.

In order to smoothen the legislative process, National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2002) had recommended pre-legislative consulting. Under this, the house shall draw suggestions and recommendations from professional institutions, business organisations, trade unions, academicians etc. by making public the draft of the bills, thus, reducing the time required to examine the bills could be brought down.

How can we deal with disruptions?
Sir, every time a newspaper or TV channel reports about disruption in the parliament, young people like me loose a little respect for politicians and political parties. I am sure you would agree that this is not desirable. We start thinking about the decisions we made during voting. And the worst is when educated people like Derek O Brien take part in these disruptions.

Kiran Bedi, an eminent Indian citizen, made a very good suggestion about the use of the ‘card system’ to solve the problems.The first time an MP enters the well of the House, he should be given a yellow card, and the second time, the MP should either be suspended for a day or so. A third card would have the power of disqualifying the MP and also giving a warning signal to his party. This would help in inculcating discipline in our Indian Politicians, which is essential for the smooth running of the Indian Parliament.

The Fourteenth All India Whips Conference recommended that one full day in a week should be allotted to address concerns of MPs. This is a really good suggestion and should be implemented right away. The opposition would also feel that their concerns and suggestions are being adresssed and this would help in creating better relations between the opposition and the ruling party.

How can we incentivise MPs to work for better laws and how can we make them more effective?

For many reasons, a Member of Parliament after serving a term is not confident of a re-election based on his or her performance in the house. The MPs do not get the deserved credit and recognition in framing laws. Most laws are passed through voice votes which are never recorded and hence cannot be acknowledged by the public. Voice voting should be replaced by division of the House or electronic voting, and the performance of an existing MP should be easily accessible by any commoner through websites, messaging services, etc.

A very high concern for the citizens would be that MPs are not allowed to exercise right to express individual opinion in the house. Their party can issue a whip and then the MP cannot vote against the whip. In case they do, it is counted under anti-defection law due to which they may stand disqualified. This is against the very basis of our democracy, where an MP represents his constituency first and then his party. A suggestion has been made that the issuance of whips could be limited only to those bills that put at stake the survival of the government, such as a no-confidence motion.

Lastly, How can the Parliament do a detailed scrutiny of legislatures and government functioning? The parliamentary standing committees do not have adequate technical support. They are provided only with a secretariat that enables only scheduling and note taking. The main drawback in our system is that the valuable recommendations of the standing committees are not obligatory. The government not only can reject the recommendations but also is exempted from giving reasons for rejecting recommendations. Unlike UK, Ministers are not legally obliged to appear in front of the standing committee. The Chairman of Rajya Sabha has suggested a review over these practices. It should be the practice in a parliamentary democracy to make public the examination of witnesses as reviewed by the committees.

Sir, these recent Lok Sabha elections were the Elections of Hope. People came out in millions to voice their opinion and they had great hope in you and therefore you have been chosen to lead this country forward. They are all looking at you with great expectations. They are not yet cynical. They do not think that “kuch nahin badlega – nothing will change”. Please don’t let them down.

With warm regards,

An Aam Aadmi