Following is the article I wrote for Seminar Magazine (May 2013 issue) as a response to a piece on obstructions in Parliament:
AN article in the February 2013 issue of Seminar titled ‘The Real Price of Parliamentary Obstruction’ by Tarunabh Khaitan highlights the issue of recent obstructionism in Parliament and elaborates on its attendant consequences. The piece highlights the fact that crucial parliamentary plenary time has been lost, and important legislation not passed due to obstructionism by (sometimes small) groups of opposition parliamentarians. It states that as a consequence of such obstructionism, the majority rule for passing legislation in Parliament has been translated to a de facto unanimity rule. A further consequence of such a unanimity rule and the consequent legislative paralysis, according to the article, has been the progressive ‘muscularization’ of the executive and the judiciary at the cost of the legislature.
This article attempts to contest three themes within this narrative. First, while some legislation has been held hostage to obstructions, obstructionism has not led to complete legislative paralysis. Such paralysis extends mainly to big-ticket legislation. Second, that the prioritization of local issues over legislative business by individual members of Parliament is in itself unhealthy, and worsens the pre-existing logjam (caused by legislative paralysis) in Parliament. Third, the ‘muscularization’ of the executive is at least as important a cause of parliamentary obstructionism as it is a consequence. A reconsideration of the issue of parliamentary obstruction on these lines may be crucial to design incentives for better usage of Parliament’s time.
In the winter session of 2012, the government introduced seven bills in the Lok Sabha. All seven were passed. In the monsoon session of 2013, this ratio dropped down to seven introduced, and two passed. However, in all other sessions of the 15th Lok Sabha, the Lok Sabha passed at least 50% of the number of bills the government introduced. In fact, the government has introduced 176 bills in the 15th Lok Sabha, while the Lok Sabha has passed 146 bills over the same period.1 While these numbers do not take into account the large number of bills still left pending, they do not indicate a state of paralysis either. Indeed, as Khaitan points out, the government has been more than willing to pass legislation, disregarding obstruction even as senior ministers have expressed grief over the passage of legislation in such a manner.
What is interesting is that while the government introduced seven bills in the 2012 winter session, it had listed 26 bills in all for consideration and passing.2 What does seem to be paralyzed, therefore, is the ability of the government to push through the legislation it wants passed. Legislation on goods and services tax, women’s reservation, companies law, direct tax, land acquisition and relief and rehabilitation, and higher education are still pending in Parliament. It may make interesting reading to see the total number of bills that have actually come up for discussion, and have been obstructed. In other words, the spectre of obstructionism causing ‘plenary bottleneck’, does not arise if legislation is not even debated during Parliament’s plenary time.
Various reasons other than obstructive logjam could be responsible for this state of affairs. The inability to form consensus, especially with coalition partners, may be one such reason. Ineptness in dealing with opposition demands may be another reason. The winter session of 2010 is one such example,3 where almost the entire session was wasted in protests over the government’s reluctance to form a JPC to look into the irregularities in 2G-spectrum allocation.4 One may characterize the loss of an entire session to obstruction as legislative paralysis. However, both the ruling coalition and the opposition should be considered as responsible for such paralysis. Lastly, legislative logjam could also simply be the result of not putting up legislation for a vote on the floor of either House due to apprehension about the passage of the bill. In other words, it may be more convenient to blame obstructionism if the ruling coalition is unsure of its ability to ensure passage of a bill.
Obstruction in Parliament can generally be said to occur for one of two reasons – opposition to government business to be conducted in Parliament, or the raising of local or non-legislative issues. The former is usually led by, or at the behest of party leaders, given the predominant strength of political parties and party leaders in our democracy. The latter, the raising of local issues, or other non-legislative issues and grievances is an important representative function that present parliamentary practice completely undermines.
In the First Lok Sabha, 489 elected members of the Lok Sabha5 represented an electorate of approximately 173 million.6 In the 15th Lok Sabha the same number of elected members represent an electorate of 700 million. At the same time, Lok Sabha met for an average of 127 days in the 1950s and Rajya Sabha for 93 days. This has decreased to 73 days for both Houses in 2011.7 Therefore, while the burden of representation on legislators during Parliament’s plenary time has increased nearly four-fold, the available plenary time to do so has decreased by a quarter.
The ‘plenary bottleneck’ therefore, is first and foremost a function of the inadequate time for a legislator to represent his/her constituency. While passing legislation is an important function for a legislator, oversight and representation are equally important. Present parliamentary practice and incentive structures create a bottleneck with respect to not just legislation, but also to representationper se. Obstruction in some cases at least, then becomes a perverse method of representing local issues, a symptom of the institutional weakness of Parliament in allowing legislators to represent their constituencies, and not just a publicity stunt.
Evidence indicates that the growing strength of the executive is as important a cause, as a consequence for obstructionism and paralysis. Since the early 1990s, the number of centrally sponsored schemes (CSS) has grown significantly (147 presently8 ), providing for direct transfer from the central government to the states. Parliamentary oversight over CSS during plenary time is limited to discussions on the budget. Data shows that an overwhelming majority of demands for grants by various ministries get guillotined, i.e. never get discussed (79% of demands for grants in 2009-109). Therefore, a large amount of government resources are being spent on CSS with no role for legislators for effective accountability or oversight during Parliament’s plenary time.
Further, the government has established a pension fund regulator, and started the largest programme in the world for capturing biometric information through the UIDAI without legislative mandate. The only significant social welfare scheme to get Parliament’s mandate was the MGNREGA, and even then, the legislation was passed after the NREGS was already operational! The executive has thus continually bypassed Parliament for various reasons, consequently reducing incentives and the ability of parliamentarians to perform their representation and oversight roles. Parliament, as many parliamentarians complain, has effectively become a rubber stamp.
Additionally, MPLADS provides a counter-incentive to parliamentarians to move away from legislative functions to executive roles. Stripped of the ability to perform roles in a representative manner within Parliament, MPLADS allows parliamentarians to focus on nurturing their constituencies by undertaking developmental works instead. Political leaders have also jostled for, and created executive decision-making roles for themselves, especially at the state level (MLALADS for example), leading to greater interference with bureaucratic processes, disregarding their legislative responsibilities and causing bureaucratic emasculation.
Parliamentary obstructionism is not just a case of errant behaviour gone unchecked. It is a consequence of a systemic de-prioritization of a parliamentarian’s representative role. The lack of adequate plenary time, prioritization of government business over all other work in Parliament, and a host of other perverse incentives are responsible for this logjam, and obstructionism is its most festering, visible symptom.
Graduate from Harvard Law School, worked with PRS Legislative Research
* I am grateful to Dr. K.P. Krishnan and Dr. Kaushiki Sanyal for their comments and inputs.
1. Lok Sabha Secretariat, Twelfth Session of the Fifteenth Lok Sabha – An Overview. Lok Sabha Secretariat, Press and Public Relations Wing, p.8 (available at: http://22.214.171.124/lssnew/ overview/11th_15LS_statement.pdf, visited on 04/04/13).
2. Kusum Malik, Plan vs. Performance – Winter Session 2012: November 22 to December 20. PRS Legislative Research, December 2012.
3. Another example would be the paralysis in Parliament over the issue of reservations in promotion in the 2012 winter session.
4. Data from PRS Legislative Research shows that the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha worked for 5.5% and 2.4% of their respective available time. (Rohit Kumar, Vital Stats: Parliament in Winter Session 2010. PRS Legislative Research, December 2010.)
5. Election Commission of India, Statistical Report on General Elections, 1951 to the First Lok Sabha. Vol. I. (http://eci.nic.in/eci_main/StatisticalReports/LS_1951/VOL_1_51_LS.PDF, visited on 11/04/13).
6. Ibid., p. 4 (visited on 04/04/13).
7. Rohit Kumar and Devika Malik, Vital Stats: 60 Years of Parliament. PRS Legislative Research (available at: http://www. prsindia.org/administrator/uploads/general/1336864627~~ Sixty%20years%20of%20Parliament%20v2.pdf, visited on 04/04/13)
8. Planning Commission of India, Report of the Committee on Restructuring of Centrally Sponsored Schemes. September 2011, p. ii.
9. Anirudh Burman, Financial Oversight by Parliament: Background Note for the Conference on Effective Legislatures. PRS Legislative Research, November 2010 (available at: http://www. prsindia.org/administrator/uploads/media Conference% 20noteConference%20note%20on%20financial%20oversight.pdf, visited on 05/04/13).