Vinod Bhanu

For the first time in the history of the Indian Parliament, a session has been abandoned or frozen for reasons that are unclear. This is unjustifiable.

The monsoon session of Parliament stands deferred. This constitutes wilful disrespect to the democratic institution of Parliament. The next session will begin on October 17 and run till November 21. Technically speaking, this five-week session will be a continuation of the two-day session of July 21 and 22 as the Lok Sabha was not prorogued after the trust vote. It was originally believed that the session would be reconvened on August 11 following the vote. However, the UPA government has resolved to cast aside the functions of a democratic Parliament. Thus it has practically managed to freeze up an important session from the parliamentary calendar. There is no possibility now of a winter session, which usually begins in the third week of November: the deferred monsoon session will practically replace it.

This is the first time in the history of the Indian Parliament that a session has been abandoned or frozen for reasons that are unclear. The reason stated by the government is the Prime Minister’s absence from the country during the third week of September. This has left a general impression that the UPA government is not giving due importance to Parliament’s status.

In recent times it has been a practice for the government to curtail or cut down the length of the session, reducing the originally scheduled number of days of sitting. There have been instances of the normal starting dates being altered due to elections in some States. The monsoon session of 2007 was supposed to begin in mid-July but was delayed until August 10 in view of the visit of the Prime Minister of Japan as the government was keen that he addressed Parliament.

This is unjustifiable. Any government recklessly dispensing with a session of Parliament or deferring its sitting for whatever reason will have a detrimental effect on its ability to carry forward its constitutional responsibilities.

There are normally three sessions in a year: the budget session (February-May), the monsoon session (July-September), and the winter session (November-December). The question of having more or less fixed dates for the start of the three sessions was considered by the General Purpose Committee of the Lok Sabha at a sitting held on April 22, 1955. It recommended a time table for the three sessions. Later these recommendations were adopted by the Cabinet. The sessions start on different dates, though more or less in specified months in the parliamentary calendar. However, this time table has clearly not been observed in practice.

There has been a trend of decline in terms of the number and duration of sittings of Parliament after the period of the first Lok Sabha during 1952-1957. This trend of deterioration has been not only in terms of sittings or ‘hours of labour’ but also the quality and length of the debates and the legislative outcomes. There were 677 sittings (3,784 hours) during the first Lok Sabha (1952-57). This is the highest recorded count of the number of sittings of the House of the People. The Rajya Sabha, meanwhile, had 565 sittings during 1952-57. During the period 1971-77 (when Parliament had its tenure extended by a year), the Lok Sabha had 613 sittings (4,071 hours).

This, however, cannot be considered to have been a positive trend, as it included the period of the Emergency. The average number of sittings of the Lok Sabha during 1952-57 was 135 days a year. In 1956, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha sat for 151 and 113 days respectively. This is the highest number of sittings of Parliament till today. In 2006, Parliament sat for 77 days. In 2007, however, this declined in the Lok Sabha to 66 days, marking the lowest number of days in the last few years with the exception of 2004, which was an election year. And now it looks as though 2008 is going to have the lowest number of sittings. This is disheartening, and will inevitably erode public trust in the institution.

There is a long-pending proposal that the minimum number of days of sittings for the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha be fixed as 120 and 100 respectively, so as to ensure that Parliament is able to transact its business and carry forward its responsibilities in an optimal manner. This proposal has not been implemented or received due consideration.

Parliament’s role in the decision-making process is becoming more marginal than it was in the formative years of Indian democracy. Though there are conflicting critical views about Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in building the institution, he undoubtedly believed in the primacy of Parliament and was an active and eloquent participant in its debates. According to Atul Kohli, the author of Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability, powerful leaders and political parties in India have often proved to be enemies of democratic institutions and have shown sustained disrespect towards their functions.

Parliament was a vibrant institution during Nehru’s period. After his death in 1964 it retained its prime position in the polity and was highly functional until 1971. The period of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership, on the other hand, saw persistent and intermittent efforts towards the deinstitutionalisation of fundamental democratic instruments. According to critics, Parliament’s stature was diminished under Indira Gandhi and it was effectively reduced to a rubber stamp. Rajiv Gandhi was absent from the floor even during major debates. Though P.V. Narasimha Rao had a reputation of being a good and serious parliamentarian, he also maintained a level of indifference towards the institution. Interestingly, Parliament’s activities were expanded and it played a far more significant role during the minority governments under the leadership of V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar in the period between 1989 and 1991.

India has adopted the Westminster model of parliamentary system. It was claimed that this was not merely a pale imitation of the British model, but that the success of India’s experiments in parliamentary democracy would have immeasurable influence throughout Asia and other countries.

Vital in representative democracy

The holding of Parliament sessions in a regular manner is vital in a representative democracy as it is Parliament that links the government with the people. Parliament is the prime and foremost debating body, where functions such as the consideration of policy and legislation, articulation of constituency grievances or issues of national importance can be performed and solutions found. A serious and proactive Parliament can aid good governance, but the expectations of the citizens can only be fulfilled if the institutions of Parliament, and its members, are well informed, committed and sensitised.

There is widespread concern about dispensing with a session of Parliament among the citizens and the opposition parties, including those on the Left. However, the expressed concern of these parties for democratic protocol will be undermined if they proceed to disallow the business of the Houses and create pandemonium. It is the responsibility of the treasury benches and the opposition to ensure the smooth and effective running of the House. There are substantially developed and legitimate parliamentary procedures available in Parliament to raise or bring issues to the notice of the government and subsequently to seek a solution. The public interest requires that the House engages with its constitutional functions and follows legitimate and established protocol.

There are issues of prime concern to be raised in the next session, such as the Jammu and Kashmir crisis, price rise and inflation. Apart from these, there are many important issues that need Parliament’s attention. Long-pending Bills such as those relating to the right to education, reservation for women, social security for the unorganised sector, HIV/AIDS affected persons and so on, are awaiting due consideration and passage. Without discounting the responsibility of the opposition benches in this regard, it should be said that if the UPA government persists with its disrespect towards Parliament and subjugates an established system of democratic governance into disarray, democratic shock therapy will provide a sharp reminder at the next general elections.

(The author is executive director of the Centre for Legislative Research and Advocacy, New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own.)