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Parliament’s Weapons Of Mass Disruption

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The parliament gridlock over Manipur is a subject of concern. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed that the guilty will not be spared. Home Minister Amit Shah wrote to opposition leaders and declared in parliament that the government is ready to discuss the sensitive border state of Manipur. Yet the opposition is intransigently demanding a statement from the PM, when the issue comes under the Home Ministry.

In Lok Sabha, instead of resorting to adjournment motions, the opposition could have sought a short duration discussion without a vote under Rule 193 or a detailed debate with a vote under Rule 184. Another option was a motion to consider a policy situation or any other matter under Rule 342.

In Rajya Sabha, the logjam was about the opposition insisting on Rule 267 that allows suspension of the day’s business to debate Manipur. A former Lok Sabha Secretary General observed that Rule 267 is being “used wrongly” as a substitute for an adjournment motion. Except Rule 167, there is nothing in the Rajya Sabha rulebook that enables a discussion on an urgent and serious matter like Manipur. Given their comparative numerical advantage in Rajya Sabha, why did opposition not opt for Rule 167, which enables a detailed discussion with voting?

The opposition has turned a Nelson’s eye to all the above alternatives. While a no-confidence motion has been moved, no opposition party individually, including the Congress, has the required 50-member threshold. Is the opposition really interested in dialogue or is it mere political theatrics?

Edmund Burke, in a speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774, said “parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests… but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good..”

The disruption of parliament should be an instrument of last recourse. The Indian parliament used to convene for 120-140 days every year. Now this has reduced to 60-70 days. The running cost is said to be at Rs 2.5 lakh per minute. Productivity in the last Budget Session of the Lower and Upper house were 34% and just 24.4%. The Rajya Sabha chairman had even remarked, “Let’s ponder over the dismal performance of the House and find a way out.” 

Experts have suggested various methods to deter disruption, like increasing the number of sitting days, fixing a substantial threshold of MPs to permit a debate motion, proportionate pay cuts for MPs and developing a parliament disruption index to oversee and restrain indiscipline.

The recurring refrain of the opposition is its inability to articulate its views in parliament on important issues of public interest. This can be tackled by introducing the concept of opposition days, when the non-ruling parties decide on the business. Though decisions of the two Houses will be non-binding, issues raised by the opposition will undoubtedly draw people’s close attention. UK and Canada currently have 20 and 22 opposition days per parliamentary session.

Parliament’s weapons of mass disruption have been the adjournment motion in Lok Sabha and Rule 267 in Rajya Sabha. The first Lok Sabha Speaker called the adjournment motion a “very exceptional thing which the members should resort to only when something very grave affects the whole country, its safety, its interests”. A former Vice President of India had observed that one cannot run the House seeking recourse to Rule 267; it is like a ‘Brahmastra’ and if you start taking recourse to it, it becomes an ‘astra’.

Given the history of parliament disruption on a frequent basis, amendments incorporating a regulatory clause to both the adjournment motion and Rule 267 can be considered. This could act as a deterrent and ensure that both these rules are invoked only in rare circumstances, for issues of national importance.

Reducing disruptions will help foster a vibrant parliamentary democracy. Our Indian parliament which has come up with unwritten innovations like Zero Hour could explore new ways to amicably deliberate and effectively legislate.

(CR Kesavan, a former member of the  Prasar Bharati Board, is with the BJP.) 

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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