It is difficult to overstate how dysfunctional our Parliament has become. The blight that has been a long time in the making has made the Parliament more a place for theatre than for thoughtful consideration of the nation’s many problems.

Democracy is meant to be a system of government by compromises and accommodation. That is why it’s called a reconciliatory system. It’s where the myriad aspirations of individuals, groups, regions and nations are sought to be reconciled towards a common good. It’s a government by discussion and debate, for the method of making choices is by common consent and acceptance. For a democracy to function, a prime prerequisite is institutional order and coherence. But unfortunately, in the recent past, this institutional order and coherence have collapsed. Parliament is where the aspirations are intended to be reconciled, and our Parliament has become increasingly dysfunctional.

Anything goes in the increasingly adversarial politics in India as long as it accrues to the gains of the adversaries. Imagine a game of chess where instead of two sides – black and white – we have three sides (say, red is the addition) playing on a three-sided board. The objective of each player is to destroy the pawns and powers of the other sides and capture their kings. Now complicate this a bit more. The rules of the game can allow any two sides to combine for a certain length of time against the third. Complicate this further with colours switching sides at will to make gains. When one colour is extinguished, the two left have the space to fight to the finish without looking sideways.

The Indian political system might very well have more than three colours. But we can see three major sides in the political spectrum for now. These are the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the loose alliance of the former Janata Dal factions and the regional parties, commonly called the Third Front.

From 1969 to 1989, the BJP (formerly the Jana Sangh) and the precursor factions of the Janata Dal used to combine against the Congress. In 1990, VP Singh broke that arrangement by arresting BJP veteran LK Advani and halting his rath yatra. Since then the Congress has occasionally combined with the Janata Dal factions (minus VP Singh) against the BJP. You see the latest manifestation of this in the Grand Alliance (Mahagathbandhan) that convincingly defeated the BJP in Bihar. That win was foretold once the two sides combined to give the BJP political returns in proportion to its popular support. In 2014, the BJP got a lopsided mandate of 283 seats in the Lok Sabha with just 31% of the popular vote.

Non-ideological competition

The political and economic goals of the three major groupings in Indian politics do not differ very much. They are all committed to a raucous democracy and an economic system that gives the political players enough opportunity to collect rent from crony capitalists. Where they differ is in the share of the spoils and individual ambitions, which is the cause of abrupt shifts in political positions.

It is the devolution of our politics into a non-ideological political competition that has led to the demise of discussion and debate in Parliament. The growth of 24X7 TV news channels and their vacuous talk shows aimed at garnering TRPs rather than spreading light has only accelerated this process. The Parliament still meets and passes bills and enacts laws, but most of this is done without the debate they require and we expect. Even the budget is barely discussed. The defence budget has not been discussed for years now. The Parliament even functions without quorums – the minimum number of members that must be present to constitute a meeting of either House – most of the time. It has become just a theatre for the political factions to posture and win support outside.

In this bedlam, political adversaries pick issues to stall important political statements the ruling party is invested in. The Goods and Service Tax Bill is a case in point. The BJP opposed a Goods and Service Tax as long as it was in the opposition, and BJP-ruled states, including Gujarat led by Narendra Modi, were vociferous in their opposition. To the Congress then, the GST was a symbol of its commitment to the reforms process. Now the sides have switched. The Congress is hoisting the BJP on its own petard. It’s the same situation with the Nuclear Liability Law. The stringency demanded by the then opposition, including the BJP, saw it become so unreasonable and impractical that there are no takers for the offer to international power companies to open nuclear power generation.

One has to look beyond sundry ambitions of individual politicians for this dysfunction. There are serious institutional flaws in our parliamentary system. American scholar Dr Jessica Seddon, who is currently a Senior Fellow at IIT Madras’ Center for Technology and Policy, recently wrote a perceptive paper titled “The Limits of Control in Parliament” in which she examined the institutional arrangements that preclude intelligent and patient discussion of vital matters in either House of Parliament. Seddon writes:
“Parliamentary process is currently stacked against constructive debate. It awards the government substantial control over what comes up for discussion, limits the avenues for alternatives to be articulated and seriously considered, and more or less precludes coalitions that cut across government and opposition lines. In doing so, it also effectively absolves the opposition from any responsibility to highlight specific problems, propose new solutions and build issue-based coalitions around common interests. If delay, disruption and shouts of ‘no’ are the only feasible forms of public dissent, it’s hard to ask people to hold their representatives accountable for more.”

Furthermore, the opposition has little say in the agenda for discussion since our rules allow for somewhat stronger government control over the agenda than many other parliaments.

Debating reforms

The Speaker of the English House of Commons presides over its debates, determines which members may speak, maintains order during debate, and may punish members who break the rules of the House. Unlike presiding officers of legislatures in many other countries, the Speaker remains strictly non-partisan and renounces all affiliation with his or her former political party when taking office as well as when leaving the office. Customarily, the House re-elects Speakers who desire to continue in office for more than one term.

The Speaker of the US House of Representatives is an active and partisan leadership position and the incumbent actively works to set the majority party’s legislative agenda. The Speaker usually does not personally preside over debates, instead delegating the duty to members of the House from the majority party. The Speaker normally does not participate in debate and rarely votes. Aside from duties relating to heading the House and the majority political party, the Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and represents his or her Congressional district.

The office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha is modelled after the English Speaker. But in India, with its lesser regard for convention, the Speaker continues to be a party hack and works closely with the government that chose him or her to further the party’s political agenda. It is little wonder then that the Speaker, despite the show of deference by the MPs, actually commands little authority to control the House. Opposition members often feel stonewalled because of the Speaker’s political affiliations. This is perhaps why the Lok Sabha witnesses so much disorder and willful disobedience. The convention of picking a Speaker from within must be re-examined: we might be better served by having Parliament presided over by an eminent and commonly trusted individual, perhaps a retired Chief Justice who might bring a more enlightened view of right and wrong to the office.

Then there is the Anti-Defection Act, which seriously limits free discussion by muzzling inner party discussion and expression of dissent. The anti-defection law owes its origins to the reformist zeal of Rajiv Gandhi in his early days as prime minister. Whether it was the perception that his soaring popularity was ephemeral and that he would be vulnerable to defections engineered by the old guard, or whether it was a genuine desire to reform politics by putting an end to chronic defections and political instability, or more likely a bit of both, Rajiv Gandhi pushed through the law on defections which blights our polity even now.

This Act disrespects the essential reality that Members of Parliament or legislatures are representatives of the people. That they are members of a political party is only incidental. The elected members are intended to represent and protect the interests of the people who elect them and not that of a handful of leaders. It makes them subservient to the whip on the pain of expulsion. This tyranny of the whip has made MPs marionettes that are forced to act according to the wishes of the party leadership. Most party leaderships are now vested with families and clans, and leadership is hereditary or extra-institutional.

So where do we go from here? And where will we discuss and debate just that?