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Let them speak: Suspension of MPs shows Parliament must find better ways to engage

The absence of procedural mechanisms for deliberating on contentious issues is at the heart of parliamentary dysfunction. It has led to the current impasse between the government and the Opposition and the resulting unprecedented situation. Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha suspended 141 Opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) for disrupting its proceedings in the ongoing winter session of Parliament.

The Opposition parties have insisted that the Home Minister make a statement addressing the security breach. The government’s stand is that the security of Parliament is a sensitive matter. It comes within the purview of the Lok Sabha secretariat, and the government will follow the directions of the Speaker, Om Birla, in this regard. The Speaker has informed the House that a high-level committee is investigating the matter. And some of the suggestions provided at an all-party meeting have been implemented.

The standoff in Parliament is not new. Irrespective of a political party/ alliance’s role in our national legislature, a familiar story has played out over the years. The Opposition demands a debate on a pressing issue, and the government shies away. The disruptions and the disciplinary responses we see today result from years of procedural stagnation in our parliamentary system.

The regular disruption of our parliamentary proceedings by MPs started in the 1960s. These were by individual MPs who felt that the presiding officer was not giving them adequate opportunity to highlight matters they considered important. MPs like Ram Sewak Yadav and Mani Ram Bagri, members of the third Lok Sabha (1962-67), were routinely warned by the Speaker to adhere to parliamentary norms.

On different occasions, their repeated disruptions led the House to suspend them for seven days. They were, perhaps, the first parliamentarians that the Lok Sabha excluded from its proceedings. Towards the end of its term, the third Lok Sabha suspended eight MPs together, indicating that disruptions were going to become the norm in our parliamentary discourse. Since then, there have been numerous occasions when MPs have disrupted the national legislature and have been disciplined for it. But with time, parliamentary disruptions slowly transitioned into a political tool. Multiple presiding officers of Parliament have highlighted this changing trend. Speaker of the 14th Lok Sabha Somnath Chatterjee remarked that “on many occasions, there are disruptions in the proceedings of the House which take place not spontaneously but because of the deliberate acts of stalling the proceedings by shouting and trooping into the well of the House, only intended not to allow the Houses of Parliament to function.”

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And while the nature of the disruption evolved, Parliament’s institutional response remained simplistic and unchanged. It still views disruptions as a disciplinary problem that can be addressed by penalising MPs. Part of the problem lies in the way we view our Parliament. Our Constitution framers designed our national legislature as an institution that was meant for the government to transact its business.

They gave the government the power to convene Parliament. The rules of parliamentary procedure strengthened this thought process. These rules were based on the pre-independence British template. Their purpose was to ensure the colonial government’s business had primacy in the legislature. Adding to this notion, was the Westminster parliamentary principle that the smooth functioning of the legislature was the responsibility of the government.

This is a flawed way of looking at the highest law-making, accountability and representative institution in the country. This gives the government the power to decide the legislature’s agenda and control what issues get debated in it. Legislatures are collaborative spaces, where both the treasury and the Opposition should work together for a better outcome for the country. An elected government’s role should be to set legislative and fiscal priorities.

The opposition’s responsibility should either be to oppose those ideas or to strengthen them by suggesting alternatives or pointing out gaps. And if the government is not swayed then to respect the will of the people. But our parliamentary system does not provide adequate space for Opposition parties in Parliament. They can suggest and demand the raising of specific issues in the legislature. But it is up to the government whether to accept them or not. And therein lies the crux of the problem. If Opposition MPs are not able to have a say in the House, it invariably leads to disruptions. So far, the institutional response has been to penalise disrupting MPs. As recent events have shown, this approach has become unworkable.

In 2005, Speaker Chatterjee had remarked that it was not possible for a presiding officer to run the House “… if a group of members is adamant on not allowing the Houses to function, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to regulate the proceedings in a smooth manner.”

For Parliament to work effectively, penalising MPs will not be enough. It will require a change in its procedures so that the Opposition can also set the agenda for debate in the two Houses. Currently, only private members get two-and-a-half hours every Friday to discuss important legislative and policy issues. However, there is no mechanism where a group of MPs can require that a specific discussion take place in Parliament. The only mechanism available to them to force a debate is through a no-confidence motion. Perhaps, it is time that Parliament thought about incorporating specific days for the Opposition in its calendar of sittings. Like the House of Commons, these days could be reserved for deliberating on issues that the Opposition considers important.

The recent disruptions and en masse suspension of MPs should be a wake-up call for our national legislature. These events highlight that its reputation as the highest forum for deliberation is at risk. Parliament needs to find better solutions for fostering debate, or risk the slow erosion of public faith in it.

The writer looks at issues through a legislative lens and works at PRS Legislative Research

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