Parliament in the Indian Polity
Over the past half-century, India has undergone a massive change from the number of political parties, nature of politics, number of states, their importance and others. At the same time, India’s journey as a democracy has been exemplary and a prodigious act of faith. The only thread which has kept these different elements of the polity together is its parliamentary form of democracy. The institution of parliament not only gives a voice to the vast Indian citizenry but also creates an institution for accountability of the political system to an extent.
Historical Overview of the Indian Parliament
The history of the parliamentary system in India can be traced back to the Minto-Morley Reforms also known as the Indian Councils Act, 1909. The said act aimed at introducing opportunities to non-official and natives of India to participate in the functioning of the council which was introduced by the Indian Councils Act, 1892. The present bicameral structure of the Indian parliament was incorporated by the Government of India Act, 1919. Similar to the option of bicameralism, which Indian states possess at the moment, the GOI Act also added the feature of ‘dyarchy’ at the province level. The bicameral characteristic of the Indian parliament was further solidified by the Government of India Act, 1935, which otherwise thwarted various points of its preceding 1919 reform. In 1947, the Constituent Assembly (legislative) was created for purposes of ordinary law-making in addition to being entrusted with the drafting of the Constitution. This became the provisional Parliament of India immediately before the commencement of the Constitution from 1947 to 1949.It was only after the drawing up of the Constitution and the creation of the twin Representation of the People Acts in 1950–1951 that national elections led to the first Parliament of an independent India.
How has the Parliament changed over the years?
We see that the Indian polity has had roots of participatory representation even before independence. The parliament has only grown as an institution for a non-party based functioning of the country and the diversity in the participation has grown over the years. When the universal suffrage was adopted in 1951, nobody could have envisaged the impact it has had. Presently, the Indian National Lok Dal’s DushyantChautala (26 years, at the time of election) is the youngest Indian parliamentarian ever in the 16thLokSabha. And at the same time, RishangKeishang holds the record to be the oldest MP as a member of the RajyaSabha. In addition, on an average, the present Parliament constitutes to be the oldest ever with just 55% of its members under the age of 55. The proportion of under-matriculates and matriculates is at 23%, slightly higher than in the outgoing house, and proportion of graduates and post-graduates slightly higher. Agriculture is one of the most popular professions amongst parliamentarians with 27% engaged in the same in the present parliament. ‘Politics and/or Social Service’ follows with 24% and only 38 lawyers. This figure is against the Britain educated lawyer dominated first five years of Parliament and the following years. Thus, we see the social as well as demographic composition of the parliament has changed drastically over the last seventy years. Through quotas, a certain number of seats have been earmarked for historically marginalized groups—notably the Scheduled Castes and Tribes—and this has ensured the representation of these groups in Parliament. Consequently, while imperfect, Parliament is a reasonable representation of the diversity of social interests.
Of course, like any long standing institution the Parliament of India has had to endure quite a many shortcomings as well. One of its most difficult times can be pointed out to the 1975 State Emergency, declared by Mrs. Indira Gandhi. It is popularly believed that the same was done in an attempt to safeguard her political position and continue to be in power. The 42nd Constitutional Amendment, 1976 also took place during the same period, amending almost all provisions of the Constitution and also tampered with the clause of Parliamentary Sovereignty of the constitution. Thus, the colossal event exposed not only the vulnerability of a young democracy but also the importance of a strong institution, which not only enforces accountability but also, is above and beyond the power of a single office. The weakening of political parties, the multiplicity of political parties represented in Parliament—from five in the first LokSabha to nearly 40 in those elected a half-century later—and the changing nature of constituent services and re-election incentives have all transformed the institution of the Indian Parliament. But despite many shortcomings, Parliament has endured as an institution.
Basic Structure of the Parliament
Further, we look at the basic structure of the Indian Parliament as has been outlined in the Indian Constitution. The Article 79 calls for constitution of a Parliament for the Union which shall consist of the President and two Houses to be known respectively as the Council of States and the House of the People. In addition, Article 79-122 deals with Chapter II (Parliament) of Part V (Union) of the Constitution.
The President as a part of the Parliament
The President of India is elected by an electoral college consisting of the elected members of both Houses of Parliament and the elected members of the Legislative Assemblies of the States. Though the President is a constituent part of Parliament, he does not sit or participate in the discussions in either of the two Houses. There are certain constitutional functions which he has to perform with respect to Parliament. The President summons and prorogues the two Houses from time to time. He/she also has the power to dissolve the LokSabha. His/her assent is essential for a Bill passed by both Houses of Parliament. When the Parliament is not in Session and he is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action, the President can promulgate Ordinances having the same force and effect as laws passed by Parliament.
For instance, on average, 10.3 ordinances have been issued per year since 1952. Under the present government, 9 ordinances have been promulgated during 2014-2015. They include The Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Ordinance, 2015, The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Ordinance, 2015, The Citizenship (Amendment) Ordinance, 2015, The Insurance Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014, The Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Second Ordinance, 2014 and others.
The RajyaSabha or the Upper House
Formed on the lines of the House of Lords, the RajyaSabha or the House of Elders is composed of 250 elected members and another 12 members nominated by the President on the basis of their excellence in the field like Literature, Sports, Art, Science, Technology and others. Presently, MC Mary Kom, Sachin Tendulkar, Rekha, SwapanDasgupta, Subramanian Swamy are amongst the 12 nominated. The elected seats are distributed amongst the states in a manner such that each state has representation almost equivalent to its proportion of population.
The representatives of each State are elected by the elected members of the Legislative Assembly of the State in accordance with the system of proportional representation by means of single transferable vote. The minimum age for membership of RajyaSabha is 30 years.
Every member of RajyaSabha enjoys a safe tenure of six years. One-third of its members retire after every two years. This ensures continuance of the House. RajyaSabha is not subject to dissolution.
The Vice-President of India is the ex-officio of the RajyaSabha. He/she presides over its meetings. In his/her absence the Deputy Chairman, who is elected by its members from amongst themselves, presides over the meeting of the House.
LokSabha or The Lower House
Unlike RajyaSabha, LokSabha is not a permanent body. It is the body of representatives of the people elected on the basis of adult suffrage (all Indian citizens of 18 years of age and above are eligible to vote). The maximum strength of the House envisaged by the Constitution is 552, out of which 530 members are directly elected from the States, while 20 members are elected from the Union Territories, and not more than two members of the Anglo-Indian community may be nominated by the President of India if, in his/her opinion, that community is not adequately represented in the House.
A certain number of seats have been reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the LokSabha. Some constituencies are reserved for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and only persons belonging to these communities can contest from these reserved constituencies. However, all the voters of the reserved constituency vote irrespective of their caste/tribe.
The total elective membership of the House is distributed among the States in such a way that the ratio between the number of seats allotted to each State and the population of the State is, so far as practicable, the same for all States. The representatives are elected for a period of 5 years, and their qualifying age is 25 years.
The presiding officer of the LokSabha is known as Speaker, who is elected by the members of the House. In his/her absence, a Deputy Speaker, who is also elected by the members of the House, presides over the meetings.
How far have the three organs of the Parliament been successful?
The main function of the parliament is to make laws. Every bill has to be passed by both the Houses and assented by the President of India in order to become an Act. The subjects over, which Parliament can legislate are the subjects mentioned under the Union List in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India. These subjects are: Defence, Foreign Affairs, Railways, Transport and Communications, Currency and Coinage, Banking, Income Tax, Customs, Excise Duties, Atomic Energy, Census etc.
Besides passing laws, Parliament safeguards interests of citizens and exercise control over administration through resolutions, questions addressed by members to Ministers, and motions of adjournment.
Over the past sixty seven years the Indian Parliament has passed and repealed innumerable laws and made quite a few amendments to the constitution. In the process, there have been instances of unimaginable chaos in the House. One such unprecedented spectacle took place when Congress MP from Vijayawada L. Rajagopal used a can of pepper spray to protest against the tabling of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill in 2014. There have been other instances of throwing fans at fellow parliamentarians, walking out and not allowing the Houses to function as well. Hence, bringing to limelight how unruly measures of protest have often obstructed the working, especially in the recent past. Not only is the behaviour and decorum of the parliamentarians a hindrance but so is the basic structure of the Parliament. For example, the underlying logic for the RajyaSabha has been that it acts in defence of interest of the states. In practice, however, the capacity to do so has been limited. One reason for this is the numerical superiority of the LokSabha. In any joint sitting, the LokSabha outnumbers the RajyaSabha two to one. On balance, the RajyaSabha may have a formal status equal to that of the LokSabha in the electoral college that chooses the president, but its constitutional standing and legislative powers are considerably lower. The RajyaSabha has neither the power to introduce money bills nor to reject them. At most it can delay money bills for two weeks since at the end of that period a money bill pending before the RajyaSabha is considered to have passed. In recent years, the rise of regional parties in states has of course, led to an increased importance of RajyaSabha; hence, actually attempting to reflect the interests of the 29 states.
In addition, though the President is the head of the executive, this power is actually exercised by the Council of Ministers as often has been seen – including the 1975 state emergency. In the past, President APJ Abdul Kalam has also refused to assent to the Office of Profit bill asserting to his Presidential power. Presently, President Pranab Mukherjee also has expressed his reservations about promulgating too many ordinances.
There are various Parliamentary Committees such as Committee on Estimates, Committee on Public Undertakings, Rules Committee (LokSabha), Committee on Petitions (LokSabha), Joint Committee on Offices of Profit, and other departmentally Related Standing Committees as well to which bills are referred to for deliberation and changes. Each Committee has its own function and is required to function in a certain manner. The committees have been recently constituted in 1990s and have not come to have a lot of impact in the way the Indian Parliament functions. One of the significant reasons for this is that the Parliament tends to ignore its committee’s recommendations and most often than not, the reports are not even tabled for deliberation and discussion. And another reason for such a failure is that such committees are temporary and have no binding effect.
Parliament as a seat for accountability
The Parliament serves as a kingpin for accounting the various actions of the government. The Prime Minister with his council of minister is accountable to the country through the Parliament. In the past, Prime Ministers have had to often justify their actions in the Parliament by answering to the questions asked by other MPs of the opposition. One such recent instance has been that of demonetisation. In the Indian Parliament, the foremost mechanism for accountability is the No-Confidence Motion. In a very simple sense, a government with a substantial majority in Parliament is unlikely to be much deterred by the introduction of no-confidence motions. Since 1989, this has occurred four times. In 1989, the government headed by V.P. Singh was brought down; in 1990, the Chandrashekhar government met a similar fate; in 1997, the I.K. Gujral government fell; and most recently, in 1999, the A.B. Vajpayee government was brought down. In 2008, the UPA government almost lost its power when its ally Left pulled out of the coalition. The UPA government just survived the no-confidence.
Another important element of the Indian Parliament is the opposition, which is required to bring to light the inactions of the government, question various steps and thus, make the government accountable and responsible. In all reality, this element has never really been actively instrumental in the Indian context. Initially, because there was no opposition as such; later, because political parties in India work to serve selfish interests, and are all in all flimsy institutions.
However, in the long run, the Indian Parliament has proven to be a seat of action in propelling the country forward. What we need is a better and more disciplined set of Parliamentarians who truly implement the spirit with which the Parliamentary democracy of India was formed. The deliberation, discussion and implementation of bills require to be a greater aspect of the Parliament than sheer criticism or walking out of the House.
Campus Law Centre,
University of Delhi.