Decline of parliament

By Inder Jit

(Released on 8 April, 1980)

Parliament and its functioning is regrettably not receiving from its sovereign matters, the people, the close attention it deserves. Hundreds of men, women and students no doubt turn up to see the two Houses at work. Often, they queue up patiently for an hour or more outside for the privilege and for “enjoying” what many later describe as the zero-hour drama. The Press, too, reports its proceedings prominently and fairly fully. But the relationship between the two seldom goes beyond as between a cinemagoer and the film or between the fans and the freestyle wrestlers with one difference: visitors to the two Houses are strictly barred from cheering or jeering or participating in any other way. Not many care to remember that they themselves are the masters and, what is more, ask: is Parliament functioning usefully as it should in terms of results and money spent?Is it improving with time or is it declining? Can something be done to revamp its quality or at least to stop the slide downhill?

Candidly, few things have depressed me as much in recent weeks as my frequent visits to the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha while the brief budget session was on. Parliament’s decline continues and in many ways the recent session saw it touch a new low. Undoubtedly, Parliament’s functioning left much to be desired even during Nehru’s time. (It has been my privilege to get a ringside view of the two Houses for almost three decades.) Nevertheless, Nehru was greatly missed within a few years of his death as also his assiduous efforts to nurture Parliamentary democracy and build up healthy conventions. Indeed, the decline became so pronounced by the early seventies that the years under Nehru appeared in contrast as Parliament’s “golden period.” Today, one yearns nostalgically for the situation as it prevailed in the early seventies, provoking a veteran to remark: “Our problem is no longer one of how to strengthen Parliament. We have now to save Parliament.”

Nothing symbolizes the decline of Parliament more than two of the several aspects of the last session. First, the basic concept of parliamentary democracy was forgotten and the Treasury benches and the Opposition members clashed repeatedly in tempestuous verbal duels making any orderly functioning of the two Houses impossible. Second, the failure of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha to discuss adequately one of the gravest developments in post-independent India: the unprecedented economic blockade of one State by men and women belonging to another State. Admittedly, the Opposition came forward in the Lok Sabha with adjournment motions. But all these were disallowed by the Speaker, Mr. Bal Ram, in his wisdom. Attempts by the Opposition leaders to get the Speaker to reconsider proved in vain. Instead, Mr. Madhu Dandavate was allowed to raise the subject under Rule 377 and Mr. K.P. Unnikrishnan through a calling attention notice. Both devices were evolved in the fifties to enable members to elicit information only and not to thrash out urgent issues agitating the whole nation.

The Speaker was within his powers to disallow the adjournment motion and ask the Opposition leaders to see him in his chamber even if this provoked Mr. G.M. Banatwala, Muslim League, to tell the Deputy Speaker later in another context: “I have been elected to the House and not to the chamber of the Speaker.” The Speaker’s discretion is absolutely under the rules and no member is permitted to raise in the House a matter once disallowed. However, veteran Parliamentarians emphasise one basic truth: Parliament is sovereign in regard to its functioning, not the rules. In fact, the rules empower Parliament to suspend the rules themselves in case these are found to come in the way of its functioning in the best national interest. Never before was an issue more eminently suited for an adjournment motion, according to the experts. (Incidentally, the Lok Sabha debated adjournment motions on the Teachers’ strike in Calcutta in 1954, firing in Bhangi Colony in Delhi in 1957 and the Assam language riots in 1971.) Democracy, they further assert, is sustained by discussion and debate, not by shutting these out.

Much in the final analysis depends upon the quality of Parliament and its members. The founding fathers of the Constitution were fully conscious of this aspect, especially in a country like India. In fact, they engrafted in our Constitution an innovation empowering Parliament to lay down additional qualifications for becoming a member of either House of Parliament — apart from being qualified to be an elector. This provision, according to Dr. Ambedkar, was intended to secure for Parliament men of better caliber than an ordinary voter. Alas, however, no additional qualifications to achieve that end have as yet been framed. What is worse, even where the Constitution has provided some yardstick, the qualifications have been diluted and distorted over the years. A case in point is the provision for the nomination of twelve members to the Rajya Sabha consisting of persons “having special knowledge or practical experience in respect of such matters as the following, namely, literature, science, art and social service.”

The provision enables the Government to make available to Parliament the services of distinguished persons unwilling to get involved in the rough and tumble of politics. Several eminent men have consequently adorned the Rajya Sabha. These included educationists like Dr. Zakir Husain, historians like Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji and Dr. Tara Chand, scientists like Dr. Satyendranath Bose, poets like Maithilisharan Gupta and Harivansh Rai Bachchan and artistes like Rukmini Devi Arundale and Prithviraj Kapoor. At the same time, however, the provision was misused to nominate to the House former Ministers like Mr. Mohanlal Saksena and Mr. JairamdasDaulatram in 1959. Subsequently, even erstwhile members of the Lok Sabha belonging to the party in power were nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Not only that. Independent persons nominated have been encouraged to become member of the party in power, making a mockery of the Constitution whereunder these members are barred from voting in the Presidential poll to emphasise their non-alignment and independence.

At the time the Constitution was framed, the Union Constitution Committee recommended that ten members be nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the President in consultations with the universities and scientific bodies. The proposal came up before the Constituent Assembly but was not favoured because of a strong feeling against having a second chamber in India. But the mood changed when Mr. N. GopalaswamyAyyanger persuasively argued in its favour and observed that by doing so “…we also give an opportunity, perhaps, to seasoned people who may not be in the thickest of political fray, but who might be willing to participate in the debate with an amount of learning and importance which we do not ordinarily associate with the House of the People.” In fact, he then moved an amendment proposing that “we should have 25 members in the second chamber to be returned by functional committees or panels on the lines of the Irish Constitution of 1937 which provides for 11 nominated members in the Seanad Eireann of 60 members.

The first draft Constitution of October 1947 thereupon contained the GopalaswamyAyyangar proposal for having 25 “seasoned people” in the second chamber. The draft further provided for five functional panels which were to be constituted as follows: persons with knowledge and practical experience in (1) national languages and culture, literature, art, education and other professional interests to be defined by an Act of Parliament; (2) agriculture and allied interests; (3) labour; (4) industry and commerce, including banking and finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture and (5) public administration and social services. The Fourth Schedule appended to the Draft Constitution contained detailed provisions for drawing up the five panels. Twenty-five members were then proposed to be elected out of these panels by the House of the People according to proportional representation. But the scheme underwent a further change following the visit of Sir B.N. Rau, Constitutional Adviser to the Constituent Assembly, to the United States and Ireland.

President de Valera, according to Framing of the Indian Constitution, edited by B. Shiva Rao, advised Sir B.N. Rau against adopting the Irish panels. The Drafting Committee consequently dropped the panels and instead empowered the President to nominate 15 members with experience and knowledge of (a) literature, art, science and education; (b) agriculture, fisheries and allied subjects; (c) engineering and architecture; (d) public administration and social sciences and (e) labour and commerce. Ultimately, Dr. Ambedkar cut down the number of nominated members from 15 to 12 and suggested that these (as presently provided) should come from “literature, art, science and social service.” He also proposed that the President be empowered from time to time to nominate up to three persons to assist both Houses of Parliament in regard to a particular bill. Unfortunately, however, Dr. Ambedkar had second thoughts and an interesting proposal fell by the wayside.

Not a few wish in retrospect that some of the proposals mooted by Dr. Ambedkar and others had been accepted. Indeed, there is clearly a case for taking a fresh look at the quality of Parliament and see if something can still be done in two ways. First, by laying down additional qualifications for MPs. And, second, by perhaps increasing the number of nominated members in the Rajya Sabha from 12 to 25, as once proposed, to enable Parliament to get the full benefit of the experience and wisdom of some of its top men following retirement from their statutory offices such as the Chief Justice of India, the Chairman of the UPSC, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Chief Election Commissioner. The list could perhaps be expanded to include Bharat Ratnas, the retiring Cabinet Secretary and the three Services Chiefs. But the nominations would have to be statutorily provided and not left to the sweet will of the Government of the day. Such a scheme could, together with other measures, go a long way in improving the quality of Parliament and in checking its distressing decline. — INFA