The political deadlock on the repealing of farm laws and the Pegasus phone-hacking controversy has washed out the first two weeks of the monsoon session. Slogan-shouting has become the background sound for parliamentary debate, and the Parliament television crew are locked in a contest of camera angles with the protesting Members of Parliament. Amidst all the din and the drama, both Houses have passed key bills without discussion, and the question hour has barely taken place.
Parliamentary proceedings were relatively incident-free in the first two Lok Sabhas (1952-62), but things started changing from the third Lok Sabha. In its five-year tenure, tempers ran high, and multiple times, the Speaker had to suspend members for disrupting the proceedings. On some occasions, marshalls had to escort the suspended members from the House. It was in this Lok Sabha in 1963 when in a first a few MPs interrupted the address of President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan to legislators of both Houses.
The protesting MPs also staged a walkout from the central hall. A committee found that the offending MPs had planned the interruption, and subsequently, the Speaker delivered a reprimand to them on the floor of the House. The general elections in 1967 returned Congress to power with a reduced majority in Lok Sabha, and the Opposition upped the tempo of interruptions in the House. And when the Congress was in the Opposition a decade later, disruptions in Parliament continued. In her biography (Courage & Commitment), Margaret Alva recalls how the shouting brigade of women MPs in Rajya Sabha “would keep raising issues pertaining to violence against SCs and women and disrupt the House.” She further shared that after an unsavoury exchange in the upper House, a woman MP walked up to a male colleague in the lobby and ripped his kurta.
Passionate speeches and walkouts have been part of the functioning of our national legislature. But in the last four decades, the disruption of parliamentary functioning has become the favoured tool in the legislative strategy of political parties. When in Opposition parties hold House proceedings hostage, and complain about such tactics when they are in power. The snatching of papers and tearing them, as was witnessed in this session, has also occurred in the past. In 1998, there was pandemonium in Lok Sabha when Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced. Some MPs snatched copies of the Bill from the hands of the minister and Speaker and tore them up. Rajya Sabha saw similar scenes in 2010 when a new bill on the same subject came up for discussion in the House. However, the regularity of disruptions should not entrench them into the ethos of our legislature.
Disruptions also raise questions about the financial cost of non-functioning Parliament. A 2008 discussion paper of Lok Sabha estimated that each minute of Parliament costs Rs 29,000 to the public exchequer. Four years later, the then Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal said that the cost of parliamentary disruption is Rs 2.5 lakh per minute. There is no information about the calculation behind these numbers, but assigning a rupee value to the working of Parliament is inherently problematic. Going by the simple “cost of running Parliament” per minute logic, can a political party or a wealthy MP buy a certain number of hours to disrupt Parliament? Can parties pool in money to jointly purchase disruption time slots and reduce their costs? Should Parliament maximise its disruption revenue by dynamically setting the price for disruptions depending on demand, higher during question hour and lower during the latter part of the day?
There are two unmeasurable costs to parliamentary disruption. The first is the opportunity loss to the entire country when there is a delay in making national laws. Add to this the cost of poorly made laws that are ineffective because there was no debate on them due to disruptions. Important legislation that will govern the use of DNA technology in civil and criminal cases, strengthen the protection net for senior citizens, regulate surrogacy, and assisted reproductive technologies are all pending before Parliament.
Then, there is the cost of missing accountability of the functioning of our government. With no question hour and no debate on national issues, the government is getting absolved of its responsibility. It does not have to provide information about its handling of the pandemic, vaccine availability, preparedness for a third wave, price rise, privacy of communication, and what it intends to do about the farm laws and the protest by farmers against them.
In 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, “In a democracy, there are bound to be differences among political parties, and there is bound to be vigorous debate among divergent viewpoints in Parliament. Differences and their well-researched, articulate expression both inside and outside Parliament is the very stuff of democracy.” He went on to say, “But the vitality of democracy also demands discipline, constructive approach, and a readiness to contribute to consensus-building on pressing issues before the nation — and adherence to rules.” Political parties, both ruling and Opposition, have a responsibility towards the country. And the first step in discharging that responsibility starts with using the spirit of consensus and compromise to ensure a deliberative Parliament.
The author is head of outreach PRS Legislative Research. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.