The Road Ahead: Can We Make Our Legislatures More Effective?

The Road Ahead: Can We Make Our Legislatures More Effective?

The elected legislature is expected at all times to promote national interest through legislation, resource allocation and oversight functions

Dr Jayaprakash NarayanUpdated: Sunday, June 30, 2024, 10:07 PM IST
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The first contested election of the Speaker of Lok Sabha in about five decades has generated a debate on the role of the Speaker and the functioning of our legislatures. The issues pertaining legislative functioning go beyond symbolism. We need to look at ways of restoring the primacy of the legislature and promoting reasoned public debate.

A representative legislature is the forum for peaceful reconciliation of conflicting interests. It is the platform for reasoned public debate to persuade and be persuaded, and to arrive at consensus and compromise. The elected legislature is expected at all times to promote national interest through legislation, resource allocation and oversight functions. That is the standard by which we should examine the functioning of the Legislature and the Speaker.

Our Parliament and State Legislatures are modelled after the British Westminster system. Therefore, the Speaker’s role in Britain would be a useful guide. In the UK, Speakers in modern era are often elected by a contest. In the post-war era, almost all speakers are drawn from the back benches, and it is now customary not to elect a former minister as speaker. Over the past 60 years, it has been the tradition to alternate speakers between the two major parties — Conservative and Labour. That is why we see the Speakers being elected from Opposition benches often. The present Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, was a Labour MP, but was elected as Speaker in 2019 while Conservative party was in power. His predecessor, John Bercow, was a Conservative MP, elected in 2009 when Labour party was in power: Such rotation of Speakership between the two major parties has been the practice for over sixty years with one exception — Betty Boothroyd, a former member of Labour party was Speaker from 1992 to 2000, and was succeeded by Michael Martin, another former Labour party member, as Speaker in 2000.

In today s India, it is inconceivable that the Speaker could come from the Opposition, because our political culture is different. Speakers often continue their party affiliation formally or informally, and on critical occasions act in a partisan manner. For instance, most presiding officers have failed to act in the spirit of the anti-defection provisions of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. Equally, the Opposition in India tends to blindly oppose every government decision, and legislative or budgetary proposal irrespective of merits. Everything is reduced to adversarial combat disregarding the national interest or long-term public good.

Given our experience, some of the British practices are stunning. A member once elected as Speaker gives up his party affiliation and acts in a scrupulously impartial manner. A Speaker, once elected, remains a Speaker until he retires from Parliament; A former speaker never joins government as a minister, and is customarily elevated to peerage after retirement. Contrast this with the ambition of most presiding officers in India to join the executive and become ministers. If a Commons Speaker contests for Parliament again, the major parties do not put up a candidate against him, and his reelection is certain.

In the modern era, in the past 100 years, only twice a major party, in both cases Labour party, put up candidates against the Speaker in a general election. In 1935, Labour put up a candidate against Speaker Edward FitzRoy in Daventry constituency. FitzRoy won handily, and continued as Speaker until his retirement in 1943. Similarly, Labour put up candidates against Speaker Selwyn Lloyd in the general elections in February 1974, and October 1974 in Wirral constituency. On both occasions Lloyd won comfortably and continued as Speaker until his retirement in 1976.

British Parliament evolved over 800 years. Centuries of experience led to healthy customs and practices, and mutual trust and respect among major parties. We need to start the process to improve the functioning of the Legislatures. On whole political system and legislative functioning are dominated by party leaders. Often, the leaders have no interest in a reasoned debate. The Opposition indulges in mindless and reckless opposition to everything, and the government wants to stifle debate and bulldoze the legislature through its majority. Whenever party leaders allow a reasoned debate, our Parliament can excel. The debates on GST Bill in 2017, and on the Lokpal Bill in 2013 were of outstanding quality. When members are given freedom, our legislatures can reach lofty heights.

We need three reforms to allow legislatures to function better. First, the Tenth Schedule should be made irrelevant. If debate does not persuade any member, and if MPs are compelled to vote according to party whip irrespective of merits, then the legislature has a perfunctory role. Deliberation and debate lose all meaning and votes are cast blindly. The anti-defection provisions need to be repealed, or at the very least limited only to the no-confidence motion and budget.

Second, even if the members are free to vote as per their judgement in the House, their political future is entirely in the hands of party leaders. If any member dissents from party diktats, he is denied a nomination for elective office. If a major party denies a seat to contest, it is generally a political death sentence in our first-past-the-post system. Therefore leadership election by secret ballot, and democratic choice of candidates by party members or elected delegates should be mandatory.

Third, the committee system in legislatures should be strengthened. Woodrow Wilson said, Congress in session is Congress on exhibition; Congress in committees is Congress at work. Often the full legislature indulges in hyperbole, grandstanding and hyperpartison behaviour. In the Committees, away from the public glare and partisan pressures, informed discussion, reasoned debate and quiet consensus and compromise in national interest become possible.

The author is the founder of Lok Satta movement and Foundation for Democratic Reforms. Email: drjploksatta@gmail.com/ Twitter@jp_loksatta

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