Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (center) arrives at Parliament to present the federal budget, in New Delhi on February 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi
Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley (center) arrives at Parliament to present the federal budget, in New Delhi on February 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

India’s Parliament witnessed unusual scenes on Thursday and Friday when the budget, the Finance Bill, which decides how government collects taxes, and two other crucial legislations were bulldozed through amid chaos. A few members of Parliament rushed into the center of the house (called “storming the well” in India), sloganeering and shouting, while Speaker Sumitra Mahajan read out one legislation after the other, approving its passage.

The events of these two two days are an indicator that Parliament has now descended into a pure numbers game. It is no longer a forum where legislation is discussed, where the government is questioned about proposed policies and where the primary function of financial oversight is carried out.

This is not unprecedented. This has happened before, as in 2013 when the United Progressive Alliance led by the Indian National Congress was in power and passed the Finance Bill without discussion. The current National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won power in 2014 and obtained a majority, just seems to be following in the footsteps of the previous government and setting another precedence of its own. A feather in their cap?

Deliberate dysfunction

We have seen this before. The ruling party blames the opposition for not letting the house function, holding up crucial legislative business, and that becomes a justification for bulldozing it through with abandon. On the other hand, the opposition blames the government for not listening to its demands – such as giving special status to the state of Andhra Pradesh – not providing answers about alleged massive scams – such as the ever-growing multibillion-dollar Punjab National Bank scandal – and denying calls for accountability.

Everyone collectively seems to come to a conclusion that this is what ensues: The Parliament gets disrupted and legislations are pushed through on the basis of brute majority by the ruling coalition. Why, though? Why has this been normalized?

And the big question before us is, Will we ever be able to move past this? Or has the Indian Parliament become just a redundant forum where this drama plays out repeatedly, time and again, deliberately?

Because of the sheer arrogance of being in majority in the lower house, the government seems to feel it’s unnecessary to have a dialogue. This attitude is not exactly being appreciated by the opposition, to put it mildly

There are three reasons we are witnessing this scenario. First, the government’s job is not only to propose laws and get them passed, but also to bring on board all other parties and stakeholders while doing so. It is the government’s responsibility to have a dialogue with the opposition parties and ensure the smooth functioning of Parliament. The current government seems to be plainly failing at that. Because of the sheer arrogance of being in majority in the lower house, it seems to feel it’s unnecessary to have such a dialogue. This attitude is not exactly being appreciated by the opposition, to put it mildly.

Second, the opposition’s first instinct when the government does something that is deemed detrimental to the people seems to be to go ahead and disrupt Parliament. “They are not listening to us so what other option do we have?” seems to be the default strategy at play across the board.

The opposition parties seem to assume that this helps them politically, that the visuals of a bunch of MPs “storming into the well,” blocking the legislative agenda of the government and screaming like banshees is appreciated by their voters back home. But that is, of course, based on an assumption, and might be an absolutely incorrect assumption at that. I doubt if any voter who understands what the Parliament stands for would appreciate it not functioning and devolving into a forum where hot new slogans are born.

Third, there is something to be said about how, over the years, the Indian Parliament has become more of a numbers game than a place where substantive debates take place. The speeches given by MPs are mostly laced with pure political rhetoric rather than logical policy arguments.

Every time a member attacks the other side, the opponents get upset and storm the well or start raging endlessly, forcing an adjournment. Even the ruling-party members have been seen doing this on a few occasions. This stems from the fact that individual MPs don’t seem to matter any more, they only matter as a part of a crowd – to show collective strength and numbers.

The anti-defection law

Why has it become so? Primarily because of a little, largely unknown, law called “anti-defection.” The 52nd Amendment to the Constitution of India way back in 1985 added the 10th Schedule, which laid down how a member can be disqualified for defection.

The law says that MPs will lose their membership if they either defect to a party other than the one they were elected from or if they disobey the orders of the party whips.

The second part of this law is what in effect hands over control of the entire Indian democratic system to a handful party bosses. Individual MPs have no option but to obey the high command, no real incentive to have a mind of their own.

Over a period of time, since 1985, we have seen a steady devolution of Parliament, and the anti-defection law is one main reason for this. Individual members cannot vote based on their own beliefs or those of their voters, the people they represent. Individual members cannot oppose policies proposed by their own party, in essence cannot have a mind of their own, out of fear of disqualification. When they get “whipped” into action, they have to perform that action – even if it entails disrupting the house.

There are, of course, counter-arguments as to why this law should exist. One of them is that it ensures stability of the government in case there is a no-confidence motion. But what logical sense does it make to have the same blanket law apply to all legislation?

An MP might not agree with his or her party. An independent member might have a different take. A single party member might want to have a say. Because the anti-defection law turns representatives from individuals with their own thoughts and ideas into in essence a blob of human collective might, we have scenes in Parliament where this blob of human beings “storms the well,” disrupts the house, and is not interested in substantive arguments. Only numbers matter.

At this point in our democracy, we Indians really need a rethink on this fundamentally flawed law, which is the basis for a lot of the current insanity we are witnessing.


Meghnad is a policy wonk and freelance journalist, is a former Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament fellow, and has worked extensively on the functioning of India's Parliament.

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