In an era when most voters seem to ask the MP what he did for the constituency during his years in Parliament, it would be useful to remind ourselves that the primary role of our MPs is to legislate. Yet the task of drafting new laws, and seeing that they are passed by Parliament, has in practice become the exclusive preserve of the government of the day. And the anti-defection law basically then reduces our MPs to a head count, because the decision of the political party on any piece of legislation is supreme and binding on all MPs in the party.
In such a situation, as individual MPs, what options do our MPs have to fulfil their role as law makers? In parliamentary
parlance, any MP who is not a minister is referred to as a “private member”. Any MP can introduce bills in the House — as “private members’ bills”. This is a vehicle that is available to an MP to play his part as an active legislator, in addition to speaking on bills introduced by the government.
But, as with so many aspects of our Parliament, this is designed to fail. Let’s look at some numbers to sense the importance that Parliament gave to private members’ bills in the 14th Lok Sabha. Of the 328 introduced during its 5-year term, only 14 were discussed on the floor of the House. Not one of these was passed. Indeed, the last time a private members’ bill was passed by Parliament was in 1970. During the term of the 14th Lok Sabha, four MPs — C.K. Chandrappan (CPI), Mohan Singh (SP), Bachi Singh Rawat (BJP), Hansraj Gangaram Ahir (BJP) — contributed a total of 101 bills. Only 67 of the MPs in Lok Sabha managed to even introduce a private member’s bill in Parliament. As if sending out a signal of their importance, the discussion of these bills is scheduled for Friday afternoons, when many MPs are making their way back to their constituencies for
When the probability that it will become law is close to zero, why is it that some MPs still make the effort of introducing these bills? A number of positive reasons: some MPs choose to use this as one more way of demonstrating their competence in not just understanding an issue, but also coming up with possible solutions through a legislative proposal. MPs also believe that this is an important way of signalling to the government the need for legislation on some critical issues. Even though the bill may not be passed, it sometimes brings out the “sense of the House” on an important policy issue, which can then be taken up by government.
Before the voting age was reduced from 21 years to 18 years in 1989, there was a private member’s bill that proposed such a change. The debate on the floor of the House showed that MPs across party lines were in support of such a move. That bill was not passed, but the government later brought a bill to amend the Constitution to bring about this change. A more recent example, in which the MP could not get the government to agree to his proposal, was a bill moved by MP Mahendra Mohan to increase the number of days Parliament works. There were detailed deliberations on the floor of the House on this issue. The parliamentary affairs minister responded to the debate by explaining why it was not practical to put a lower limit of 100 working days for Parliament.
There are some opportunities for MPs to express their views on issues, independent of the party diktat. In Question Hour, MPs ask questions of the government irrespective of whether they belong to the ruling party. Similarly during Zero Hour, MPs raise important issues cutting across party lines. Private members’ bills also offer the same space to MPs, one where they can raise issues independent of party considerations. It would be useful if more MPs used these opportunities to demonstrate leadership on critical issues on the floor of the House, as active MPs who take the institution of Parliament seriously enough to warrant active participation. This would go some way in addressing the perception that MPs do not do any work once elected. This will also help individual MPs prove that they are not mere “rubber stamps” of the political party leadership, which enforces its writ using the whip and the anti-defection law.