Opportunity In Crisis For The Legislature
[ In the last 3 years we have seen a rapid realignment of power and prestige of many key democratic institutions in our country. While institutions like the Judiciary, CAG and Civil Society are leading this race by massively expanding into the large spaces provided by a rudderless executive ; other vital democratic institutions like the Legislature and the Media have failed to utilise this opportunity. ]
The Indian legislature consists of the bicameral Parliament at the center and the legislatures at the states. Being one of the fundamental organs of government it is important to scrutinize this pillar of our democracy for it’s effectiveness, responsiveness and relevance. Of the three principal organs of government, Legislature is the one that attracts the least amount of scrutiny and criticism both from the public and the media. This is perhaps one of the reasons for the prevailing sloth in our legislatures. PRS Legislative Research recently released a set of findings about the status of legislatures in India. Two key findings are as follows :
A) Except the budget session most sessions in the state assemblies last less than a week.
B) More than 90% of the bills in West Bengal, Bihar and Haryana were introduced and passed on the same day.
The still unfolding agitation and logjam around the Lokpal bill has forced the citizens to critically examine the process and institutions of law making. Another backdrop for this debate are the fresh questions and arguments being put forward by Members of Parliament like Shashi Tharoor about the very suitability of Parliamentary democracy for a country like India. Upon some analysis it would be clear that we simply haven’t allowed out Parliament to function as a true legislature and have actively undermined the institution from fulfilling it’s natural role.
Legislator as a welfare agent and a contractor
During all elections in India all parties promise welfare facilities to voters in their respective constituencies. Starting from a MP to a Municipal corporator , they all promise to take care of the civil amenities and infrastructure needs of the constituency like the roads, water supply, power supply etc. Hence, once they are elected to the legislature they continue to view themselves as welfare agents and not as legislators – whose principal duty is law making. The problem lies with both the electorate – who make no distinction between a general election and a municipal election, and the political parties who have failed miserably to educate the masses and have ended up internalising and institutionalising this deeply flawed thought process.
It is this very thought process that resulted in the Member Of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS). Under this scheme every legislator is empowered to recommend works upto 5 crores ( after the hike by Pranabda in this Budget) in his constituency. Clearly this scheme violates many constitutional features like separation of powers – which provides for separate roles for the executive and the legislature and the very concept federalism. The projects recommended must confirm to this noble definition :
Works, developmental in nature, based on locally felt needs and always available for the use of the public at large, are eligible under this scheme. Preference under the scheme is given to works relating to national priorities , such as provision of drinking water, public health, education, sanitation, roads etc (sic)
Once the recommended project is completed the following provisions are stipulated for public awareness and transparency,
A plaque for each work executed under MPLADS should carry the inscription ” MPLADS work” indicating the cost involved , commencement, completion and inauguration, date and the name of the MP sponsoring the project. The plaque should be permanently erected at the work place. (sic)
So this is our system, where we are told – don’t bother about your legislator’s voting record or his ideas for the nation, but marvel at his generous gifts like a bus stand or a facility for drinking water. Hence, it should not come as a total shock to us that our legislators are not very serious about their responsibilities as law makers.
Executive grip over the legislature
The advocates of presidential system like Shri Tharoor correctly argue about the undesirable influences of the legislature over the functioning executive. However, this aggressor-victim relationship between these institutions in India is not one-sided, certainly not under the political dispensation heading the union executive at the moment. The idea of drawing the executive from the legislature was mooted mainly on it’s virtue of inbuilt check on the executive. But today it is becoming increasingly clear that the executive is far more empowered via many institutions like the CBI, ED to subvert and scuttle the legislature. Executive backed extra-constitutional bodies like the NAC openly undermine and reduce our legislature to the status of a clearing house. Almost all of the bills passed by the Parliament are invariably govt bills, private member bills are hardly taken seriously in the house.
This is where I feel this Lokpal crisis presents an opportunity to our legislature. During the last one year institutions like CAG, higher judiciary, Civil society and social media have expanded vastly in stature by capitalising on the many follies of the executive, legislature must do so too. If the Parliament manages to pass a good and effective legislation in the next few days it will be a big win for our Parliament. This is however in the short-term, in the medium-term it is essential to reform our institutions to make them purposeful. Moving out the investigating agencies that work as govt’s henchmen away from govt control and supervision is also essential. Well laid out procedures of house operations, repealing of the tenth schedule (anti-defection law), enforcing discipline in the house and doing away with MPLADS kind of schemes ( as the Bihar govt did recently ) will go a long way. More importantly it is necessary to build the image of an MP as a legislator and nor just as a leader responsible for the welfare of his constituency.