Parliament is seen as a temple of democracy, where elected representatives make decisions via discussions and deliberations. It is regarded as the highest standard for holding executives responsible for their actions. However, the prestigious institution has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons, such as the devaluation of parliamentary authority, declining debate standards, deterioration in the behaviour and character of Members, low levels of participation, and so on. This has resulted in scepticism toward parliamentary institutions, as well as a deterioration in the credibility of lawmakers and parliamentary procedures.
Former President Pranab Mukherjee asked "lawmakers of Parliament and state Assemblies to improve the quality of deliberation, discussion and debate in the House" to improve the democratic governance and legislative process. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had once said that "debates, disputes and dialogue are the souls of Parliament".
The lively debate and Vibrant opinions that each member brings to the table form the backbone of parliamentary democracy. Absenteeism is a problem that must be addressed because it calls into doubt the integrity of elected officials and, as a result, leads to a loss of credibility, which may lead to a democratic crisis. Parliament is built on the debate, discussion, and exchange of ideas among MPs. The poor attendance of members weakens this base. When MPs are absent from Parliament, the voice of the people who elected them is not heard in the country's highest representative body. When laws are enacted without enough discussion and consideration, defects in them influence the lives of all citizens in the country. To ensure MP participation, comprehensive reform in the operation of our Parliament is highly needed. It is the first step in reforming and strengthening the deliberative nature of our democracy.
Measures: Members must be made aware of their responsibilities. Incentive and punitive measures may be used to promote attendance and reduce absenteeism. It must be made mandatory that each member is required to attend a minimum of a given number of sessions. The current provision- Article 101 of the constitution specifies that a member of Parliament will lose his seat if he is absent from the House (without permission) for a continuous period of 60 days, is clearly rendered futile and has remained unsuccessful in ensuring attendance.
Criminalisation of Politics
As per the data analysed by Association for Democratic Reforms, 43% of the current Lok Sabha MPs have declared cases against them and 29% have declared serious criminal cases. 24% Rajya Sabha MPs have declared criminal cases out of which 12% have declared serious criminal cases against them.
There is an ongoing quiet crisis- the continuous erosion of politics over decades, which has accelerated in the last 16 years. As politics takes control of the bureaucracy and tightens its grip on business, civil society, and the media, we want governance that is free of the "criminal" virus. Capability alone is insufficient. The desire to serve the public is also necessary. We knew the British were competent, but we didn't want them. Today, it is not about a single political party, but about the political system as a whole.
Dr Rajendra Prasad, President, Constituent Assembly of India in his speech on 26th November 1949 had stated, If the people who are elected are capable and men of character and integrity, then they would be able to make the best even of a defective Constitution. If they are lacking in these, the Constitution cannot help the country.
Measures: The Supreme Court ordered political parties to make public the whole criminal past of its candidates for the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, as well as the reasons for nominating suspected criminals over otherwise decent individuals.
The information should be published in both a local and national newspaper, as well as on the parties' respective social media accounts. It must be publicised within 48 hours after candidate selection or no later than two weeks before the first day for submitting nominations, whichever comes first.
These measures remain futile until voters become aware and responsible for the choices they make, being the backbone of democracy the onus of choosing representatives lies on the masses. The making and breaking of democracy depend on the choices they make. People should be well informed and in the capacity to make rational choices.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest-serving US president, says “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” This echoes Gandhi’s statement on the need to educate voters. This is a demand-side solution, and the onus for this lies squarely with civil society. It cannot and will not be done by the Government, political parties, religious institutions, media or business houses.
The opposition is highly significant in Parliament. It keeps the government under check and acts as a restraint on the whims and fancies of the ruling party. It prevents the governing party's totalitarian and dictatorial inclinations from blossoming. Quality decision making and debates need vocal and vigorous opposition.
Currently, India lacks a strong opposition for two reasons: one, the existing opposition is too fragmented, and two, the ruling government is enormously powerful, leaving no room for opposing viewpoints.
Measures: As mentioned previously, the opposition plays a critical role; in a representative democracy, even if the majority party wins, what about the voice of the people who didn’t vote for the ruling party? Thus, it should not be overlooked that the opposition must take on this responsibility of ensuring that the voice of such individuals and their interest reaches the house. It is necessary to provide constructive criticism. Unnecessary theatrical walkouts interrupt proceedings and are often used to garner attention and create sensationalism. On the side of the ruling party, mutual respect for all parties and members elected to the house is necessary. To my mind, the overarching purpose is to serve the larger public, and hence cooperation is critical.
In order to strengthen the role of the opposition, the institution of ‘Shadow Cabinet’ can be formed in India.
The anti-defection statute is intended to maintain a stable government by preventing MPs from switching sides. However, this statute precludes a legislator from voting in accordance with his conscience, judgement, and the electorate's interests. Such a situation impedes the oversight function of the legislature over the government, by ensuring that members vote based on the decisions taken by the party leadership, and not what their constituents would like them to vote for or what they feel is best suited.
Political parties guide MPs on how to vote on the majority of issues, regardless of their nature. Numerous analysts have recommended that the rule should apply exclusively to those votes that decide the government's stability (passage of the annual budget or no-confidence motion).
Measures: The 170th Law Commission study emphasised the significance of intra-party democracy, noting that a political party cannot operate as a dictatorship on the inside while being democratic on the outside. Thus, the parties should consider the members' perspectives and have negotiations concerning them. This would ensure its members' freedom of speech and expression and would foster intra-party democracy.
Several experts have suggested that the law should be valid only for those votes that determine the stability of the government (passage of the annual budget or no-confidence motions).
Reduced Scrutiny Standards in Parliament
In March 1993, the notion of Department-related Standing Committees was developed to guarantee that Parliament successfully carried out its legislative obligations.
These committees are tasked with the responsibility of scrutinising legislation affecting various ministries. However, the majority of the bills were passed by the Parliament through a voice vote, without much debating and without referring them to the parliamentary committees. For instance, the RTI Amendment Act (2019) and the UAPA Amendment Act (2019) – both of which have a significant impact on civil freedoms – were approved without being referred to a Parliamentary committee.
Measure: Measures to ensure the successful operation of Department Related Standing Committees (DRSCs), such as extending tenure and encouraging specialisation, are required.
In countries such as Sweden, Finland, and Australia, it is mandatory to refer the entire bill to the parliamentary committees or at least a portion of it. India should impose a comparable condition in order to make use of the committee system's advantages that have been taken for granted so far. Bypassing Parliamentary committees in the passage of key legislation demonstrates a deterioration of democracy.
Parliamentarians are generalists and sometimes legislation requires technical information and specialised knowledge hence it becomes extremely important to refer such bills to the Parliamentary committees to get an expert opinion on the same.