Letter from Asia: India’s parliament has hit new low, warns its elder statesman

Almost every day, it seems, business is suspended because of disruptions by MPs
  • @AndrewBuncombe

There were no speeches, no grand farewells. Instead, when business in the upper house of India’s parliament concluded just after 5pm last Wednesday, Rishang Keishing got up from his seat and headed for home.

“I have had enough. I am glad to go,” Mr Keishang, from the north-eastern state of Manipur, told a reporter. “I’m sad that parliament now is not what it used to be. It’s only shouting and shouting. MPs now are like trade union leaders – they come here only to demand this and that. This is not the parliament I knew.”

The 94-year-old Mr Keishang was a member of India’s very first parliament when it met back in 1952. So when he made his final exit last week – he plans to step down from parliament – he could have been excused if the lenses in his spectacles were a little rose-tinted.

But the data backs him: this 15th parliament, which concluded last week ahead of an upcoming general election, has been the least productive India has ever seen, clearing just 177 of 326 bills scheduled for passage.

The reason is quite simple. Almost every day, it seems, business in the either the lower house (Lok Sabha) or upper house (Rajya Sabha) – or sometimes in both – is suspended because of disruptions by MPs.

Often they will pour on to the floor of the chambers, forcing the Speaker to suspend business. And the 15th parliament saw things plunge to a new low. In the final days of its life, as it took up a controversial bill to create a new state in the south of India, proceedings were brought to a halt on two successive days.

Firstly, several MPs had to be taken to hospital after one of the members set off pepper spray. The following day, an MP tried to rip a document from the hands of a parliamentary official. “Do not do that,” implored the Speaker, as he sought in vain to keep order. There was widespread outcry, but no MPs were penalised.

To anyone tuning in to the government channels that follow parliamentary proceedings, the disruptions were new only in scale. Previous interruptions had happened during debates over the auctioning of the 2G spectrum to mobile phone networks, the right to mine coal and over foreign direct investment in retail. Only a handful of major bills were passed.

The group PRS Legislative Research tracks the performance of MPs and parliaments over the years and produces a “productivity” comparison based on a supposed working day of 11am-6pm. If members sit longer, the productivity increases, if they sit less, the figure falls.

The group’s Chakshu Roy told me this last parliament had been the least productive in at least 50 years. (The group does not have data from the first two parliaments.)

Whereas the seventh parliament (January 1980 to December 1984) had enjoyed a productivity rating of 120 per cent, meaning those members sat for longer than scheduled to, this last parliament had managed just 61 per cent. “As a deliberative house, they have not been able to live up to the standards of a parliament,” he said.

Mr Roy suggested the increase in disruptions was because there was less political consensus. The days of India’s oldest political party, the Congress, enjoying a simple majority were long gone. The rise of regional parties had led to unstable coalition governments.

KV Narendra is the director of the Rezorce Research Foundation, which also tracks parliament and politicians. He said he believed the years after India’s secured independence had attracted politicians with zeal for the country. The last 20 years, by contrast, had lured people who wanted to make money. “Many of these politicians have very serious business interests. They usually only show up when there is something that relates to them,” he said. “It’s like a board meeting.”

He said some MPs had an attendance record of just 14 per cent. Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, scored 42 per cent. By contrast, Mr Keishing scored 87 per cent. (If time off for illness was subtracted it would be 94 per cent.)“For someone in his nineties and in the sixth decade of representative democracy, he has wonderful attendance,” said Mr Narendra.

Mr Keishing, an erstwhile freedom fighter who was a member of the Socialist party before joining the Congress, spent four terms in parliament and twice served as chief minister of Manipur.

He told the Indian Express newspaper he remembered figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, Abul Kalam Muhiyuddin Ahmed Azad, the first education minister, and Congress party president Jivatram Bhagwandas Kripalani, debating in the House.

There were fewer disruptions back then, he said. People had a chance to listen to “great orators”. “The entire House,” he added, “would listen in rapt attention when they spoke.”