THE world’s largest democracy. There is not a visiting president, prime minister or prince who fails to utter those four words, as President Obama did recently while addressing MPs in the high- domed Central Hall, or others do at official banquets. But a cursory glance at what has been going on inside Parliament in recent times makes such platitudes seem mind- numbing. The Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha are supposed to be democratic fora for healthy debate, discussion and dialogue but of late they have been turned into platforms to fight mean political battles.
I have with me data compiled by PRS Legislative Research on the winter session of Parliament that opened with Obama’s address to the joint session. It makes for startling reading. In the first 11 days of this session, the Lok Sabha was scheduled to conduct business for 66 hours; it did for exactly five hours and 37 minutes. Fifty- five hours of business were scheduled in the Upper House but it functioned for precisely an hour and 14 minutes. That’s a work rate of 9 per cent and 2 per cent respectively, the kind that would permanently put you out of business if you were in industry or in the private sector. But then this is Parliament.
Something is terribly wrong with the health of our parliamentary democracy and I won’t be surprised if, watching the proceedings on TV, more and more Indians begin to doubt the ability of their MPs to provide answers to the many problems troubling them. The records show that MPs have little or no interest in fulfilling their primary duty, which is to legislate. Just take a look at their record this year alone. During the budget session, on eight out of 32 days, the Lok Sabha met for less than an hour; the Upper House met for an hour or less on nine days.
During the budget session, 27 Bills were listed for legislation, but only six were passed by both houses. Among those, 40 per cent were passed without discussion. Some of the Bills were passed after a mere 15- minute debate while the Lok Sabha passed the Gratuity Amendment Bill and Clinical Establishment Bills within the space of five minutes one afternoon. During Question Hour in the Rajya Sabha, on nearly half the days, not a single question could be answered orally by ministers and of the total 620 starred questions, only 92 were called in the house. That’s just 14 per cent.
The performance during the monsoon session was no less distressing. On eight of the 26 days, the Lok Sabha met for less than two hours each and during question hour, only 10 per cent of the questions were answered orally. The Lok Sabha also saw nearly half the Bills brought before the Sonia Gandhi house being passed within two hours after its introduction. 64 Lok sabha MPs did not put up any question or private members Bill or take part in any debate; In the Rajya Sabha, 34 members similarly did not participate in any deliberation in the house.
The only redeeming feature in the otherwise gloomy set of statistics is that attendance in both houses during the session was higher than in the previous session.
If anything, this proves that the MPs trooped in every morning not to debate or discuss but to disrupt. It was not too long ago that all parties had unanimously resolved not to disrupt proceedings by rushing to the well of the house. But the well has these days become the epicenter of parliamentary activity where frayed tempers dominate and occasionally fisticuffs are witnessed .
What’s worse, earlier it were the smaller parties with less than a handful of members that trooped into the well to get noticed. Nowadays it is the main opposition party with more than a 100 members that takes to the well. When that happens, even the Speaker is resigned to kissing goodbye to the day’s business. Someone once said that every parliamentary deadlock is finally resolved after some give- andtake with the government having its way but only after the Opposition has had its say. But what we are seeing now is an Opposition that has little to say and a government that’s looking for a way out of a never- ending gridlock.
That’s why I feel Sonia Gandhi needs to be lauded for asking her party MPs not to avail of the daily allowance of ` 2,000 as long as proceedings remain disrupted. For 800 members of both house, it amounts to ` 16 lakh a day, a pittance in these scam filled days. Have no doubt, it is no symbolic gesture. It’s meant to tire out the Opposition and force the disruptionists to ask themselves if , as MPs, they deserve the prefix “ honourable”.