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Neither tired nor retired

By A. Surya Prakash
Originally published on The Pioneer (Tuesday, July 24, 2012)

Our Parliament has stood the test of time. Despite the warts, it remains a beacon of hope for millions of Indians.

Our parliamentarians turned up in good numbers for the special sitting of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha on May 13, although it was a Sunday, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Parliament. But, as all Indians know, the 60th anniversary (Shashtaabdi Poorthi) is also a day for some sober reflection on life gone by and on what lies ahead. So, away from the din in the two chambers, there is need for some quiet stock-taking on the efficacy, relevance and standing of these two chambers which are at the apex of our democratic structure.

How have these two Houses functioned over the last 60 years? How representative are they? Have they fulfilled their mandate of overseeing the work of the executive and protecting the interests of the people? Are our MPs still committed to public welfare? Do they take their parliamentary duties seriously? Given the constraints of space, let us attempt to answer at least some of these questions.

Since this is a birthday celebration, it would be in the fitness of things to begin on a positive note. The biggest achievement of the two Houses of Parliament is that they have become far more representative of the Indian people now than they were 60 years ago. We can now see the occupational democratisation of the Lok Sabha. Almost half the members of the first Lok Sabha comprised lawyers (36 per cent), journalists and writers (10 per cent), and most of them came from the dominant castes. The subsequent political empowerment of hitherto disadvantaged groups has changed the composition of the Lok Sabha in terms of occupation, caste and class of members. The MPs are also better educated these days. There is a corresponding change in the composition of the Rajya Sabha as well.

A couple of other developments that are of a positive nature are the introduction of the committee system and the televising of parliamentary proceedings by Speaker Shivraj Patil in 1993. The constitution of department-related committees has improved Parliament’s oversight functions and has nudged MPs towards areas of specialisation. With the Parliament’s proceedings being televised, people are now able to see their representatives in their true colours in the two Houses. Television coverage has at least improved the sartorial sense of MPs, if nothing else!

However, there are items on the negative list as well. For instance, the Question Hour has lost its zing. The inquisitorial nature of this hour, which one observed in Parliament up to the late 1980s when Ministers trembled at the thought of being subjected to harsh interrogation by the likes of Bhupesh Gupta, Indrajit Gupta, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Madhu Limaye, Piloo Mody and Madhu Dandavate, is completely over. Today, MPs who are ill-prepared or lack the moral courage to pin down Ministers appear uncertain and nervous. As a result, Ministers like Mr P Chidambaram, who are wanting in democratic etiquette, talk down to them. Many other parliamentary instruments like adjournment motions, call attention motions and short duration questions have become rusted. The Government is no longer afraid of the Opposition because the latter too is not clothed in moral authority any more.

With regard to the performance of individual MPs, the report card is disappointing. The distance between MPs and the electors is growing. The motto in the 1950s was: Simple living and high thinking. Now, it is high living and no thinking. MPs flaunt their power and wealth and stay away from the aam aadmi. They want lal battis atop their cars; they are obsessed with their privileges and have a disdain for ethics; and they neglect parliamentary duties. Their attendance is generally abysmal during the passage of important Bills and there is high absenteeism in parliamentary committee meetings (as much as 50 per cent). The list is endless. All of this has taken a toll on the functioning of Parliament.

On the issue of maintaining standards in public life, our Parliament started on the right note when it decided to expel HG Mudgal for advancing the cause of the Bombay Bullion Association in the House for a price (`2,700) in the Provisional Parliament in 1951. Thereafter, there was laxity on this count after the two Houses came into being, so much so that Parliament had watched in silence when a member forged the signatures of 20 MPs on a memorandum in what came to be known as the Pondicherry licence scandal. Sensing public resentment, Speaker Shivraj Patil proposed a code of conduct for parliamentarians in the early 1990s and the Privileges Committee of the Lok Sabha followed this up with a recommendation that Parliament should adopt the code. These developments led to the establishment of the Ethics Committees in the two Houses, but the committees have by and large remained dormant.

Parliament, therefore, needed a major jolt to understand the growing public concern over the fall in ethical standards among the MPs. This happened with two sting operations conducted by television professionals in 2005. The first of these exposed a ‘cash for questions’ scandal. MPs were willing to raise questions in Parliament for a price (`30,000 to `1.10 lakh). The matter was investigated and 11 MPs were expelled from Parliament. Around the same time, another television channel showed four MPs or their personal staff demanding money to recommend projects under the MP Local Area Development scheme. Here again, based on a committee’s findings, the MPs were reprimanded and suspended from Parliament for a while. But the most shocking case was that of a Lok Sabha member who was into human trafficking. He was caught smuggling a woman to Canada on his wife’s passport. Action was swift. He was criminally prosecuted and later expelled from the House.

So, what does the balance-sheet look like? As stated earlier, the most positive development over the last 60 years is the political empowerment of disadvantaged groups, introduction of the committee system and better policing of members. However, we still need to address the issue of dysfunctionality of Parliament (loss of over 30 per cent of parliamentary time to disruptions), MPs’ disdain for law-making and the absence of periodic audits of the working of Parliament by independent citizens.

Finally, since this is the 60th anniversary of our Parliament’s first sitting, let us end our diagnosis on a positive note by borrowing a phrase from Mr Vajpayee. Our Parliament is 60, but it will neither tire nor retire. Instead, it will go on to perpetuity and hopefully become more responsive to the aspirations of the people.

The accompanying visual shows Members of Parliament at the function to mark the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, in the Central Hall of Parliament House in New Delhi on May 13. PTI photo by Shahbaz Khan



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