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October 4, 2009

Where our MPs stand

One of the main functions of Parliament is to make national laws. Bills are introduced by the government, examined by committees, discussed in the House and then voted into law. In many countries, voting records of legislators indicate their individual policy leanings, and are often debated when they contest for re-election.  However, voting records of MPs rarely form the subject of public discourse in India.

A key reason for this missing analysis is the absence of voting records. Most votes in Parliament are conducted by voice votes. That is, the Speaker asks the MPs who support a motion to say “aye” and those who oppose it to say “no”.  Then the Speaker rules which side has greater support. Any MP can dispute the ruling and ask for “division”, which results in recorded voting: however, this is rarely done.

The anti-defection law is also a factor that makes it difficult to draw inferences about the preferences of MPs. The argument is that MPs do not have the option to vote their view. They are bound to vote according to the party diktat, and could lose their parliamentary seats if they go against the party line.  Thus, any vote indicates the preference of the party and not the preference of the MP.

It is still instructive to see how our MPs respond to government Bills.  We have used a proxy to measure voting trends—their speeches during the debate on each Bill. Parties nominate MPs to speak during the debate. Usually, in their speech, MPs express their support or opposition to the Bill. We use these as an indicator of their vote. Given that these MPs are nominated by their parties, we can also extrapolate these speeches as representing the party line on the Bills.
The results are interesting.  During the entire term of the 14th Lok Sabha, 92 percent of all speeches were in favour of the proposed Bill, 7 percent were opposed to the Bill, and 1 percent, ambiguous.

MPs from the main opposition party BJP supported government Bills on 84 percent of their speeches, opposed on 13 percent occasions and were ambiguous on 3 percent of the occasions.  Of the 173 Bills passed by Lok Sabha (excluding finance and appropriations Bills) over five years, MPs from BJP opposed only 10.

It is interesting to see the list of Bills that the party opposed.  These include the repeal of POTA and the amendment to the UAPA in 2004—which was a reversal of the NDA’s action; a Bill to establish the National Commission for Minorities Institutions;  the Office of Profit Bill (that among other offices, exempted the chairperson of the National Advisory Council from the list of offices of profit); the AIIMS Amendment Bill that resulted in the termination of its director Dr Venugopal (and was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court); the Bill to change the name of Uttaranchal state to Uttarakhand (which was in the Congress campaign manifesto). Interestingly, they also opposed the Food Safety and Standards Bill stating that several provisions of these Bills should be reworked. The BJP’s position is surprising on two Bills: the Patents Amendment that amended the Indian system to conform to international agreements; and the Bill that permitted sale of a cement plant owned by Cement Corporation of India as part of the revival scheme of BIFR. They also opposed the Bill that modified the depiction of pictorial warnings on cigarette packets.

The CPI-M too supported most Bills.  The three Bills that they opposed included the formation of the Andhra Pradesh legislative council, the establishment of the Maritime University headquartered in Chennai and the amendment to the SBI subsidiary banks that permitted greater public voting rights. Of course, in several cases, the government did not proceed with Bills that the Left parties were against; these Bills were either not introduced, or not taken up for consideration and voting. Some examples include Bills related to the pension sector, forward contracts and banking regulation.  The government’s agenda included these Bills a number of times, but they were never taken up for consideration.

There could be several reasons for the lack of opposition to government proposals. First, many of the policies of the UPA government were carried over from earlier policies of the NDA government. This is especially true in the financial sector. Second, it is possible that the government brings in only those proposals which have a wide political consensus. Many Bills which faced objections from the Left parties were not taken up for consideration. Third, some proposals may still be politically difficult to oppose.

The parliamentary system is supposed to be an adversarial system, with the opposition parties trying to expose the government’s weaknesses. However, the data from the 14th Lok Sabha shows that the opposition has supported the government’s proposals in an overwhelming majority of cases. This indicates that much of consensus-building occurs outside parliament, and that in several issues, there is not much of a difference between the positions of Congress and BJP.

The first full session of the 15th Lok Sabha witnessed the opposition getting their act together and stalling the introduction of the Judges’ assets Bill.  It would be interesting to see whether this is bodes any change to the way the opposition acts in the next few years.


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