Monday, August 19, 2013

Parliamentary Obstruction: VP calls meeting to change rules

The Vice-President has called an all-party meeting to discuss changes in Rajya Sabha rules which will facilitate the House to function smoothly. As I have argued in this article in the Seminar, obstruction in our Houses of Parliament are already rule-violating (unlike the filibuster in the United States, which is tolerated by the rules of proceedings). Parliamentary rules also vest the Chair with a significant (some might say, even draconian) amount of power to enforce them.

The reason why these rules have remained unenforced is that they rely on a politically weak office of the Chairperson/Speaker for enforcement. Every attempt to do so requires the Chair to identify the offending MPs, and inevitable invites allegations of partisanship. Enforcement attempts thus become yet another reason for disruption, and are completely counter-productive.

The Seminar article also outlines the very heavy price our democracy has been paying because of frequent parliamentary disruption. In particular, the most consultative and democratic of institutions has been paralysed, and power has shifted considerably to the less accountable parts of the state--the judiciary and the Executive (some have noticed the phenomenon in the United States too).

Of course, part of the solution to the problem of dysfunctional legislatures is political. Our political culture has come to accept obstruction as normal, and not just by the Opposition. Even the governing party has used it to escape legislative scrutiny. However, some clever rules may aid the process of changing this culture. I proposed certain strategies in the Seminar article, excerpted below. At least some of them can be achieved by simple amendments to parliamentary rules or the Salary, Allowances, and Pension of Members of Parliament Act 1954.

There are two strategies that need to be pursued simultaneously to deal with the problem of plenary bottleneck. The first strategy is to reduce the number of motions that require plenary time. Constitutional provisions and the value of democracy impose limits on how far this strategy can be employed. Primary legislation must be enacted in plenary sessions. However, the role of legislative committees – which tend to be more productive than plenary sessions – in examining secondary legislation (rules) proposed by the executive can be strengthened. Further, much plenary time is wasted in determining what procedure should be followed to debate non-legislative accountability-seeking motions.
For example, the winter session of the Lok Sabha in 2012 lost several working days due to obstruction over whether the legislative debate on the executive’s decision to allow foreign investment in retail should take place under a rule which allows voting or one which doesn’t. It will be much better to adopt a standard rule. It could be provided that all accountability motions should be amenable to voting, at least in the Lok Sabha, where the government can be expected to be confident of its majority – or face political embarrassment when it doesn’t. Alternatively, a multiparty parliamentary committee could be empowered to conclusively determine the matter before the start of parliamentary sessions.

A second strategy is to deal with obstructions directly and increase available plenary time. Since obstruction is already rule violating, creating new rules to forbid it will be pointless. For the same reason, making rules allowing majorities to surmount it will not be any good either. The only way to deal with obstruction is to make it costly. The political costs for the obstructers will rise only when at least some major parties become thoroughly non-obstructionist, support the reforms outlined below, and seek political distinction on that basis. The legal costs will increase only if Speakers start enforcing the rules that prohibit obstruction. For the politically weak office of the Speaker, it is hard enough to suspend the odd obstructing MP. Mass suspensions are practically impossible. Effective costs will have to be automatic (i.e. not require any action on the part of the Speaker) and collective (costs targeted at obstructing members will necessarily require prior identification by the Speaker, and therefore likely to be ineffective).

Withholding the daily allowance of all legislators on days when a House is obstructed is one way to impose an automatic and collective, if relatively small, cost. Another option is to require that every House must sit for at least a hundred ‘qualifying’ days every year – a day qualifies only if a minimum of five obstruction free hours were spent on legitimate business. If time wasted during obstruction doesn’t count, it will make obstruction costly enough to become sufficiently unattractive – except perhaps in the rarest of rare cases that Arun Jaitley defends. Together, these collective costs may get our legislatures working again.

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