The requirement of consensus before admitting topics for debate gives the ruling party the power to withhold consent over subjects that will embarrass it

Many Indians are dismayed at the logjam in Parliament, and disgusted at what they see as politicians’ self-serving attitudes. They are right, of course, but only partially. In addition to MPs’ attitudes, a large part of the problem is due to inherited systemic flaws that need to be addressed. Few Indians recognise that even today, 65 years after independence, India’s parliamentary rules contain vestiges of the British Raj that are now unworkable.

India’s Parliament was founded in 1919, almost 30 years before the country gained independence, in an atmosphere of rising nationalism that worried the Raj. It was created not with the full authority that a free nation’s legislature deserves, but rather to provide a limited self-government for India, to be elected by a tiny elite.

That was Whitehall’s way of buying time and fending off the more strident demands for full independence. Accordingly, although it was based on the British Parliament, it was clearly designed as “Westminster-lite,” where the natives got a platform to express themselves, and even pass some laws for routine governance, but all within limits. The Viceroy retained the ultimate authority.

At the root of disruptions

Despite a much-lauded post-independence constitution, some of the rules of parliamentary functioning did not change. One big example, and the one that is at the root of most disruptions in Parliament today, has to do with how debates and other motions, like censures, are admitted. The carry-over, colonial-era rule leaves it to the prerogative of the Speaker; in reality, all of the Speaker’s decisions on such matters are based on the consensus arrived at by the Business Advisory Committee, which includes the leaders of all major parties in Parliament.

The operative word is consensus. Invariably, the ruling party of the day withholds its consent to admit topics that might embarrass it.

A further twist is that the ruling party often agrees to admit a plain vanilla discussion (where it can smile away even compelling arguments), rather than one that entails a vote (where it could get embarrassed at getting less support than it had claimed).

This requirement of consensus essentially gives a veto to the government over what can be discussed or voted upon in Parliament. What was originally designed as a veto for the British Viceroy to keep pre-independent India’s proto Parliament in check, is now misused in free India.

Ironically, the British themselves don’t follow this system, nor do most other democracies, which have rules clearly stipulating the minimum number of legislators required to admit various kinds of debates, motions and votes. In the United Kingdom, for instance, 40 MPs are required to admit a discussion. In the United States, 60 Senators are required to overcome the filibuster, which otherwise permits members to speak endlessly in order to avoid voting on an issue. In India itself, it only takes 55 MPs to admit a no-confidence motion against the government; but no amount of MPs demanding a voting discussion on important national issues can get those admitted without the government’s consent.

The world over, voting debates are commonplace in free legislatures. But in India, they are more likely on television (from audience participation) than in Parliament. In fact, there are some who believe that their rarity in India’s Parliament is a blessing in disguise. They are wrong. More voting in Parliament would make the government to do more of something it shirks: sell its agenda to its own MPs, allies, sections of the Opposition, and most of all, to the public.

(Baijayant “Jay” Panda is a Biju Janata Dal MP in the Lok Sabha. @Panda_Jay on Twitter.)

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