The presence of members of both Houses of Parliament – the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha – is central to their functioning. But it is not very often that parliamentary attendance is the focus of public debate. Usually, stories highlighting the low attendance rates of celebrity MPs are the extent of the media’s coverage of this important aspect of parliamentary functioning. In the monsoon session that ended on August 11, the attendance of MPs came into question on several occasions. On July 21, the Rajya Sabha had to be adjourned without completing its business because of an insufficient number of MPs. Then, the government lost a crucial vote on a constitutional amendment bill because of the absence of its MPs. The session also saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi remind MPs of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party about the importance of being present and participating in Parliament proceedings.

The presence of MPs during a Parliament session has two distinct yet interlinked aspects. The first is the attendance of individual MPs. The second is about incentivising MPs to be present in Parliament when important discussions are taking place.

Attendance of individual MPs

Let us first start with the attendance of individual MPs. Article 101 of the Constitution specifies that a member of Parliament will lose his seat if he is absent from the House (without permission) for a continuous period of 60 days. Attendance registers are kept outside the chamber of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, and MPs sign these registers to mark their presence for specific days. The calculation of the daily allowance for MPs (Rs 2,000 per day) for attending Parliament is based on these signatures.

The signing of the register has been largely free from controversy. Perhaps the only time an MP’s attendance was examined in a parliamentary forum was in 1976 (during Emergency) when a committee of the Rajya Sabha held that the signature of Subramanian Swamy in the attendance register of the House was not his. Swamy was then a member of the Upper House from Uttar Pradesh and claimed that the signature was his.

For MPs, signing the attendance register to mark their presence in Parliament is a purely transactional affair. They can sign any time before their House winds up its business for the day. Signing does not require them to either enter the House or participate in its proceedings. It only means they were physically present while signing the register. Also, not signing the register does not prevent them from asking a question or making an intervention on the floor of the House. Not marking his attendance only makes an MP ineligible to receive the allowance for that day.

Members can also apply for leave for longer periods of absence. In the Lok Sabha, a committee of its members examines these applications. And for Rajya Sabha MPs, the House itself does the authorisation of leave during its sitting. Members apply for leave for various reasons – sickness of self or in the family, overseas travel, elections in their constituency, or when they are in jail. For instance, in the current Lok Sabha, Rama Chandra Hansdah of the Biju Janata Dal has applied for leave as he has been in judicial custody in connection with a chit fund scam.

As mentioned earlier, if MPs do not sign the attendance register and are absent from Parliament (without authorised leave) for 60 days continuously, they stand to lose their seat.

The graph below displays the daily attendance of MPs in Parliament over the last year. It suggests that our MPs are diligent in attending Parliament and on most days, both Houses have an average attendance of more than 70%. But this graph does not tell the complete story. It does not explain why during the passage of key bills there are multiple rows of empty benches even when a high percentage of MPs have marked their presence in the attendance registers. Similarly, it does not explain the empty benches in Parliament during the second half of Friday.

Attendance of MPs in both Houses of Parliament between July 19, 2016 and August 11, 2017.

Quorum of the House

This is where the aspect of incentives for MPs to participate in important parliamentary proceedings gains importance. Article 100 of the Constitution specifies that a minimum one-tenth of the MPs need to be present for either House of Parliament to conduct its business. According to it, the presence of 55 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 25 in the Rajya Sabha is required for passing laws (other than those amending the Constitution) and debating national issues. The article further specifies that if the required number of MPs is not present, then the chair has to suspend House proceedings till the required quorum is present or adjourn the House in the absence of quorum.

To ensure compliance with the quorum condition, constant monitoring of the number of MPs present when the Houses are sitting is required. Therefore, the end-of-day data from the attendance registers is useless in monitoring quorum. In many parliamentary systems, including ours, there is no simple mechanism to determine if the quorum of MPs is present in Parliament. To overcome this difficulty, our Parliament has evolved two conventions concerning quorum.

The first is that after the proceedings of a House have started, quorum is assumed till the House continues functioning. This means that after the two Houses start/restart their business (with quorum being present), they continue to run even when the number of MPs present falls below the one-tenth mark required by the Constitution.

However, any MP can question the absence of quorum in the House. In such a scenario, the presiding officer temporarily stops the proceedings and rings the quorum bell. The ringing of the bell alerts MPs who are in the precincts of Parliament to come to the House to maintain quorum. If the required number of MPs reaches the House and quorum is achieved, the House continues with its business. Else, it adjourns till the next day.

This is where the second convention kicks in. Under this convention, MPs are discouraged from questioning the absence of quorum.

These two conventions ensure the continuance of parliamentary functioning even if the Houses are nearly empty. The bypassing of quorum also sends an incredibly powerful message to MPs that it is acceptable to miss crucial parliamentary proceedings.

Rubber-stamp MPs

But this is not the only aspect of legislative functioning that disincentivises MPs from attending and participating in parliamentary proceedings. Their minimal personal stake in parliamentary debate is equally responsible for their low attendance in Parliament. The law-making process is a prime example of this phenomenon. For example, legislative proposals (bills) are first debated in parliamentary committees and then discussed and passed by each House. When the discussion happens in a committee meeting, it is on technical aspects behind closed doors. The committees usually have 30 MPs. The smaller size of the committee coupled with a discussion that is more technical and less ideological encourages MPs to participate in the deliberations.

The role of individual MPs as legislators reduces significantly when the law-making process shifts to the two chambers of Parliament. Partisan positions of parties shape the debate on a bill in the two Houses. The whip of each political party (who is tasked with ensuring party discipline in a legislature) chooses the MPs who will represent the party’s viewpoint on a bill. The whip also instructs his party MPs on whether they will be voting to support or oppose the bill. This process then reduces an MP to a rubber stamp of the party in the House. Finally, at the time of the passage of the bill, MPs have to vote on it by calling out “aye” if they support it or “nay” if they oppose it. This process is called voice voting, and it ensures that there is no way of recording which MP present in the House voted for or against a bill. Since MPs have no voice in the law-making process, there is no incentive for them to be present in Parliament during the passing of laws. Instead, they use their parliamentary time to meet and canvas government functionaries to get work done in their constituencies.

The low attendance and absence of incentives for MPs to participate in legislative debate raise important questions. But it is a problem that plagues other parliaments too. In the second part of this column, we will discuss the practices of parliaments of other countries and learn what we can adopt from them.

This is the first part in a two-part series on the functioning of Parliament.

Chakshu Roy is head of Outreach, PRS Legislative Research.