On Wednesday, Britain was plunged into a political crisis when its prime minister asked the country’s queen to prorogue or suspend parliament. The five-week suspension is the longest since World War II and was carried out to facilitate the highly contentious exit of Britain from the European Union.
The move generated outrage and is being seen as a way for the government to escape Parliamentary scrutiny as it negotiates with the European Union. The House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow described it as an “offence against the democratic process”. More extreme reactions have even used the word “coup” to describe the British government’s actions.
Even as controversy rages in Britain over the government’s move to suspend the legislature, it might be instructive to note that India has the exact same provision.
Given that there were various legislatures already in operation during the British Raj in India, British parliamentary procedure was well established amongst Indians. Thus, it came as no surprise when the Constituent Assembly of free India copied the powers of the government in Britain to summon and suspend legislatures. Article 85 in the Indian Constitution gives the power to summon and prorogue Parliament to the President while Article 174 gives the exact same power to the governor when it comes to a state assembly. The only check that the Indian constitution places when it comes to summoning legislatures is that an assembly has to sit once in six months.
While the misuse of this provision is less known to Indians, it’s not as if it has not happened. In fact, it happens all the time.
Governments frequently misuse their powers to summon and prorogue assemblies. So much so that in the states, assemblies barely sit. As a result, legislatures have almost no role in carrying out their primary duty: scrutinising state governments. According to data by thinktank PRS Legislative Research, state assemblies barely convene. In Assam, for example, the assembly sat for an average of 26 days between 2000 and 2010. The top state in that list, West Bengal, was not very good either, sitting for an average of less than seven weeks per year from 2002 to 2008.
This severely curtailed sitting time means assemblies barely do any work other than rubber stamping decisions already taken by governments. More than 90% of Bills in West Bengal, Bihar and Haryana, for example, were introduced and passed on the same day.
This owes itself directly to Article 174, which gives state government complete power on when to summon and suspend assemblies. As a result, state governments allow their assemblies to sit for the minimum period (in some cases, absurdly, for a day or two) only so that government’s decisions are rubberstamped.
In some cases, Article 174 has also led to high drama like in Tamil Nadu in 1972. On November 13, 1972, the speaker adjourned the assembly to December 5, in the face of a move by the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to oust him. The political background to this unusual move: the speaker had switched sides and was now batting for the newly formed Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
(Adjournment is when the legislature takes a break but is still seen to be “sitting” unlike prorogation.)
To cancel this adjournment, the DMK government prorogued the house and then summoned it again on December 2. Unprecedented scenes then took place as both the speaker and deputy speaker attempted to preside over the house.
The speaker filed a case in the Madras High Court challenging the use of Article 174 – only to lose. The High Court quoted an earlier Supreme Court order to argue that “Article 174(2)(a) which enables Governor to prorogue the legislature does not indicate any restrictions on this power”.
The misuse of this power has happened less at the Centre – but it has happened. As Chakshu Roy, head of PRS points out, in 2016, the Union government prorogued Parliament in order to pass an ordinance (an ordinance cannot be passed when Parliament is in session).
In 2008, the Union government did not prorogue the Monsoon session right till December. The reason: a floor test had been held in the monsoon session and since one session cannot have two floor tests, the length of the session was artificially extended to prevent another challenge to the government.
Moreover, the number of days Parliaments sits has been coming down. Between 1952 and 1972 the Lok Sabha worked for an average of 120 days in a year. However, between 2000-2010 that number dipped to 70.
Given this wide misuse of the government’s powers to summon and prorogue assemblies, there have been some efforts to set things straight. In 2012, for example, the Karnataka Assembly made it mandatory for itself to sit for at least 60 days in a year. However, the Karnataka government itself has consistently ignored this number when using its powers under Article 174.
Committees and conferences ranging from the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution to the Whips Conference have regularly recommended a fixed number of working days for all legislatures. A bill was even introduced in the Rahya Sabha in 2017 which sought to make it mandatory for each house of Parliament to sit for a minimum of 100 days every year.
However, none of this has worked and till now governments have total powers when it comes to summoning and proroguing legislatures.
PDT Acharya, former secretary general of the 14th Lok Sabha and 15th Lok Sabha and Lok Sabha Secretariat, points out that this embodies a flaw in both the Parliamentary system as well as Indian democracy.
“The basic problem is that the executive completely controls the legislature. It [the legislature] has no mind of its own,” said Acharya. “We may say ‘Parliament has done this or done that’ but in reality it is only the government that is directing Parliament to act. Unlike in the United States, there is no separation of powers in India between the legislature and the executive.”
Chakshu Roy points to the fundamental problem in how this weakens the democratic idea of checks and balances. “The idea of a legislature is that it is an accountability mechanism for the executive,” said Roy. “But at the same time, the executive determines when the legislature will be called to keep a check on it. It is a bit of a paradox.”