Welcome change

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi that he wanted to be informed if ministers skipped roster duty in Parliament, he sent an important message to his cabinet — and highlighted a critical failing of Indian democracy. With the political executive increasingly flexing its muscles in recent decades, the propensity for MPs to give short shrift to Parliament has been rising exponentially. The Indian electorate is treated to regular unedifying spectacles of MPs disrupting the House — in her sparkling maiden speech first-time MP Mahua Moitra referred to them as “professional hecklers” — forcing adjournment after adjournment. The result is that serious debate on any issue is rarely possible and the backlog of the legislative agenda has lengthened to gargantuan proportions. In the Budget session of 2018, for instance, actual work in the Lok Sabha took up just 12 to 30 minutes (out of a six-hour day) on most days and 11 minutes in the Rajya Sabha. In terms of productivity, the last winter session of the last Parliament was the third-lowest in the 16th Lok Sabha.

In that sense, the 17th Lok Sabha has proved a refreshing change. Armed with an expanded majority and helped perhaps by an opposition in disarray, this Budget session, which is due to adjourn on July 26, has been among the most productive in two decades, according to the non-profit think tank PRS Legislative Research. The Lok Sabha’s official working hours are 11 am to 6 pm with a one-hour break for lunch. In the current sessions, productivity — defined as the number of hours the house functioned as a percentage of the number of hours officially earmarked for it to work — has jumped 128 per cent with MPs spending 12 hours in session on occasion. In general, the National Democratic Alliance (both the one led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mr Modi’s first term) has been more productive than the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance. Under Vajpayee, parliamentary productivity crossed 100 per cent five times in five years; in the 10 years of the UPA, productivity crossed that mark three times. In Mr Modi's first term, the comparable figure was six times. Although this pattern may say more about the BJP’s tactics in opposition, Mr Modi’s admonition to his Cabinet colleagues is a signal that he is keen to get on with things. He was also responding to complaints from Opposition leaders about the absence of ministers from the House. When Parliament is in session, a roster is prepared so that some Cabinet members are available to take questions from the opposition (conventionally, however, it is not mandatory for the PM, cabinet members or the speaker and deputy speaker to sign the attendance register, so verifying a minister’s attendance from the records is often difficult, hence the order to Mr Joshi). 

The legislative agenda in Mr Modi's second term is crowded with critical Bills to spur economic growth — among them a recalibration of the goods and services tax rates and fine-tuning the bankruptcy code — so a spurt in productivity is welcome. The concern, however, is that the third NDA’s brute majority in Parliament will narrow the space for debate and discussion on legislation, and this is where Opposition parties have a critical role to play. The Bill banning triple talaq is a case in point. In Mr Modi’s first term, the practice was banned by an Ordinance, which was promulgated three times. Its controversial clause stipulating jail for men who practise triple talaq has proved a sticking point in civil society. It is important that the wisdom or otherwise of this provision is thoroughly debated in the House so that the implications are properly understood.