Parliaments past, a mirror to changing dynamics

The conduct of business in both Houses so far only points to the need for a revitalisation of legislative engagement and more constructive debate

April 06, 2024 12:16 am | Updated 11:11 am IST

‘Over the past three Lok Sabhas, a discernible trend has emerged, shedding light on the evolving interests and priorities of our elected representatives’. Photo: PIB via ANI

‘Over the past three Lok Sabhas, a discernible trend has emerged, shedding light on the evolving interests and priorities of our elected representatives’. Photo: PIB via ANI

In an atypical departure from its usual five-day working schedule, the 17th Lok Sabha (2019-2024) concluded its proceedings on a Saturday, marking the culmination of a journey with unexpected twists and turns. Echoing a historical parallel, the previous Lok Sabha too also concluded with an extended parliamentary session. As the nation gets ready for the general election, the question arises: will history repeat itself? Or, will a new precedent be set? This prompts us, as citizens of India, to reflect on the performance of our Parliament in recent years as we wait to usher in the 18th Lok Sabha.

How Ministries fared

Reflecting on legislative activity so far it was apparent that the polity of the nation was in a state of flux. The Office of the Prime Minister found itself inundated with 1,146 questions from Rajya Sabha Members of Parliament, of which only 28 were answered. Interestingly, just as in the the House of Elders, the notices directed at the Prime Minister’s Office witnessed a sharp decline also in the House of the People — from 5,000 during the 15th and 16th Lok Sabhas to a mere 1,700 in the 17th Lok Sabha — underscoring waning interest in seeking answers from the apex executive office.

In the bustling corridors of Parliament, where policy debates and national concerns intersect, a notable shift in parliamentary focus has been quietly underway. Over the past three Lok Sabhas, a discernible trend has emerged, shedding light on the evolving interests and priorities of our elected representatives.

At the forefront of this transformation are the Ministries of Health and Family and Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare. These portfolios have ascended to prominence, becoming the top two Ministries with the highest number of questions. Notably, scrutiny of the country’s health-care system preceded the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting consistent monitoring by our representatives. But despite being the Ministries with the most number of questions, where farmers to former Ministers seek answers, the number of questions in the House of the People was noticed to be declining marginally.

Yet, the most startling revelation is in a declining interest in matters of national security and internal affairs. The Ministry of Home Affairs, which was the Ministry with the second most number of questions directed towards it till the 15th Lok Sabha, has now faded into near obscurity. It is conspicuously absent from the list of the top five most questioned Ministries in the Upper House, with a decline in notices by 32%. This shift raises questions about the nation’s priorities, particularly as the implementation of pivotal legislation looms on the horizon.

Meanwhile, as India charts its course towards economic resurgence from being one of the fragile five economies to aspiring to be one of the top five economies of the world, another narrative unfolds within the Ministry of Finance. Tasked with steering the nation’s fiscal destiny, the Ministry has witnessed a gradual erosion of parliamentary interest, declining to the fourth and fifth position in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, respectively. Yet, amidst this apparent disengagement, a glimmer of hope emerges with an increasing rate of questions being admitted for deliberation, signalling a newfound commitment to transparency and accountability in financial matters.

In addition to the profound impact on health, the COVID-19 pandemic has gravely disrupted India’s educational landscape. Nevertheless, amidst these challenges, a steadfast commitment to accountability and transparency has endured. Education remains entrenched among the top five Ministries that are subject to rigorous questioning, reflecting its enduring significance in parliamentary discourse. However, regrettably, there has been a notable uptick in the number of questions disallowed, casting a shadow on the efficacy of oversight in this vital sector.

Delving deeper into the statistics, a pattern becomes apparent. In the Lok Sabha, the percentage of disallowed questions has shown a downward trajectory across successive Lok Sabhas.

The trend is significantly reversed for the Upper House where the percentage of disallowed questions is growing consistently. In the 17th Lok Sabha, Ministries such as Health and Family Welfare, Home Affairs, Defence, Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, and Finance, made up 36.6% of all disallowed questions in Rajya Sabha, while in the Lok Sabha, they made up 37.8% of the disallowed questions, underscoring systemic challenges in parliamentary oversight.

The use of interventions

As the landscape of Indian parliamentary proceedings undergoes a metamorphosis, it is not only ministerial priorities that are in flux but also the utilisation of various interventions available to lawmakers (as shown in the Graph). Amidst these interventions, there is one aspect that stands out in terms of soaring usage: Zero Hour.

Over 15 years, the Rajya Sabha has witnessed a remarkable 62% in this, while the Lok Sabha has seen a significant rise of 34%. This surge reflects a positive signal, indicating heightened focus in addressing pressing issues and grievances, and also seeking clarifications from the government. This coincides with a dwindling usage of interventions such as ‘Half-an-Hour Discussions’, ‘Short Notice Questions’, ‘Calling Attention’, ‘Short Duration Discussions’, and ‘Special Mentions’.

Despite its popularity and usage in addressing key issues, Zero Hour has its inherent limitations. To strike a balance, it is imperative to leverage other interventions such as the ‘Calling Attention’, ‘Short Duration’ and ‘Half and Hour’ discussions which provide a platform for other members to participate in, enhancing the quality of debate and reaching amicable solutions.

In summary, the 16th Lok Sabha demonstrated a relatively higher level of proactivity compared to the other sessions. It displayed notable performance in the admission of questions and the discussions on various interventions within the House.

However, a closer look at the functioning of the House also unveiled a series of overlooked opportunities. Instances of oversight, such as the failure to raise privilege motions against misleading remarks, underscore a larger narrative urging accountability from the government. The Winter Session, 2023 of the Rajya Sabha missed a crucial discussion on the sensitive and key issue of ‘Suicides among students due to competitive exams’. Despite the Chairman’s readiness to have legislative nuances on the topic, our representatives let slip the opportunity to file for a half-hour discussion. It marked a failure to address societal concerns through parliamentary channels.

There was a time when a strong Opposition could ensure the withdrawal of Bills such as the Communal Violence Bill, 2014. Changing parliamentary dynamics only point to the need to revitalise legislative engagement, where every opportunity should be seized to ensure accountability, foster constructive debate, and enact policies that prioritise the welfare of the nation and its citizens.

Priyank Nagpal is a Legislative Assistant to Members of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow, 2023-2024. Nehal Sharma is a Legislative Assistant to Members of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow, 2023-2024

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