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January 24, 2014

A task each for the next PM and LoP

Measures that can be taken to make Parliament and individual MPs more effective.

The 15th Lok Sabha will have its last session in February. This Lok Sabha has been marked with interruptions, and on several metrics, has performed well below par. For example, the number of hours that Lok Sabha sat is about 40 percent of the time that the first three Lok Sabhas met.  Over a third of the scheduled time was lost to disruptions.  This Lok Sabha has passed 165 Bills till now, which is lower than the 330 Bills passed by the first three Lok Sabhas, and even low by recent standards:  the 13th Lok Sabha (NDA government) passed 297 and the 14th Lok Sabha passed 248 Bills.

Indian parliament

One of the most important roles of Parliament is to hold the government accountable for its actions.  It can be argued that the Parliament has, in several instances, not been able to perform this role effectively.  Let us take the example of the 2G telecom spectrum allocations.  After an entire session of Parliament was lost to the opposition’s demand for forming a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to investigate the matter, a JPC was constituted.  Three years later, it has given its report, with assent from 16 of its 30 members, as MPs voted on party lines.  In the meantime, the CAG’s report was referred to the Public Accounts Committee but that committee was unable to reach agreement on its findings, and did not submit its report.  Therefore, we do not yet have clarity on the issue.

The Question Hour of Parliament is designed so that MPs can ask questions to ministers on the policies and actions of their ministry.  This provides a means for Parliament to require the government (through its ministers) to justify its actions.  In the period of the 15th Lok Sabha, 60 percent of the Question Hour was lost to disruptions, and only 10 percent of the listed starred questions were answered orally.

We can list several measures that can be taken to make Parliament and individual MPs more effective.  These include restricted use of party whips and repeal of the anti-defection law so that each MP can speak and vote according to their conscience.  A system of recording all votes would increase the accountability of MPs to their voters.  Changes in the rules to determine what issues would be taken up for debate and providing a greater role for the opposition parties in determining the discussion agenda would reduce the ability of the government to stall discussions and voting on contentious issues, and consequently, increase its accountability to Parliament.

We suggest two more changes that can be instituted which can help towards making Parliament more effective in its role as the body that safeguards the interests of citizens.  The Prime Minister can start with a Prime Minister Question (PMQ) Time every week.  And the Leader of the Opposition can form a Shadow Cabinet.  The British Parliament has both these features, and perhaps, we can learn from its experience.

In the British Parliament, the Prime Minister answers questions posed by MPs for about 30 minutes every Wednesday.  Typically, one MP asks the PM for the day’s schedule, which is followed by others asking questions, which the PM answers.  There is no prior notice for these questions, and the PM is expected to have the broad knowledge about the policies across all ministries.  Whereas this procedure tests the PM, he can also use this time to display his command over the various issues faced by the country.

In theory, the Indian Parliament also has a provision for Questions to be asked to the PM during Question Hour.  The procedure is that all ministries are allocated a day of the week, when the respective ministers will answer Question Hour.  For example, schedule for next month lists the “Prime Minister” among the ministries scheduled for 5, 12 and 19 February.  However, in practice, the Prime Minister does not face any oral question in his role as the PM.  He only answers questions related to a ministry that he directly holds.  (Even these questions are often answered by the Minister of State.  Perhaps, one could modify this schedule to carve out 30 minutes every week when the PM answers questions in his role as the PM.

The Leader of the Opposition (LoP) has a particularly important responsibility of holding the government to account.  Again, the British Parliament has devised some mechanisms to improve the effectiveness.  The LoP forms a shadow cabinet, with each member given the responsibility of scrutinising a specific set of ministries and departments.  These MPs can then focus on some specific ministries, and be more effective in holding the government to account for its actions.  The process also helps groom particular opposition MPs if the party wins the next elections and forms the government.

The next LoP in Lok Sabha could adopt this system.  The challenge would be to decide who would be part of the shadow cabinet, and to determine whether to include members of other opposition parties.  The shadow cabinet can also work with the departmentally related standing committees if each shadow minister is made part of the respective committee.

The two changes discussed above do not need any amendment to any law or to the Indian Constitution.  These can be done by a change in the rules and procedures of Lok Sabha.  For the PMQ, what is needed is a Prime Minister who is willing and eager to defend the actions of the government on the floor of the House on a weekly basis.  For the shadow cabinet, we need a leader of the opposition who has the ability to identify and nominate party colleagues as shadow ministers.  We wish that the 2014 elections throws up such people.

Photo: Kartikeya Kaul


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