|In the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government many institutions suffered and Parliament was no exception. Ever since the 2G scam surfaced, Parliament became the site for opposition protests with almost the entire winter session being disrupted in 2010. With a new government in place, and more importantly with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alone enjoying a majority in the current Lok Sabha, things have expectedly been different.
Some of the numbers, compiled by PRS Legislative Research, speak for themselves. In the just-concluded winter session, Lok Sabha functioned for nearly 100% of its scheduled time. Question Hour, first casualty of disruptions, functioned for 84% of its scheduled time, the highest since 2004. The contrast with the last Lok Sabha is telling. In the 15th Lok Sabha, as much as 40% of the total time was lost to disruptions. Indeed, there has been a secular rise in the time lost due to disruptions in the last five Lok Sabhas from 5% in the 11th (1996-97) to 20% in the 14th (2004-09).
In comparison to the productivity of Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha has had a rough time under the new dispensation. In the recent winter session Rajya Sabha functioned for just under 60% of its scheduled time. Legislative activity was badly hit, as was Question Hour. Not surprisingly the numbers in the Upper House, where opposition easily outnumbers BJP, contributed to disruptions.
However, it wasn't just opposition strength that was responsible for lower productivity in the Upper House. Events outside the four walls of Parliament provided a stick to opposition to beat the government and stonewall its legislative agenda.
First it was intemperate statements by Union minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, who abused the opposition at a public meeting, and Sakshi Maharaj, who termed Nathuram Godse a "patriot", that fired up the opposition. Next, it was the row over reconversion of religious minorities by Hindu groups that paralysed Rajya Sabha.
That things might have gone more smoothly if it were not for these controversies is evident from the performance of the Upper House in the first Budget session of the current Parliament earlier this year, where it functioned for 106% of its scheduled time.
The net result of Rajya Sabha disruptions is that the government's legislative agenda suffered. The government had listed 37 bills to be debated and passed during the winter session, but only 10 were passed. The most important of these was the National Capital Territory of Delhi Laws (Special Provisions) Bill 2014, which aims to regularise illegal property development in Delhi and resettling slum dwellers. This was a crucial piece of legislation for the government with Delhi elections around the corner.
Legislation that was high on the government's economic agenda - the Insurance Bill and Constitution Amendment Bill for introduction of a national goods and services tax - was introduced but not passed. The Coal Mines Bill was passed in Lok Sabha but is still pending before the Upper House.
BJP, which has criticised opposition for derailing its agenda, has appealed for the focus to remain on 'governance'. Under the current government, and indeed the world over, governance has become a somewhat vacuous and catch-all phrase. But those who use it somewhat indiscriminately do not realise that it cannot preclude politics.
So when in opposition BJP took the route of opposing UPA's governance agenda, often for the sake of opposing it. Now Congress, which is in agreement with legislation such as the insurance bill, has had no qualms in joining the opposition chorus against the government. It also illustrated the fact that smaller parties, if they band together, can to some extent hold Parliament to ransom.
One of the issues that the opposition repeatedly raised was the absence of the prime minister in the House. It has now become standard practice for the PM to appear in the House once a week. Narendra Modi did briefly appear in the House and made a couple of short statements but Parliament is probably not central to his scheme of things.
This has become a trend for some time now. Long gone are the days when Jawaharlal Nehru was a pillar of Parliament and his sparring with opponents was legendary.
Since the time of Indira Gandhi, the role of the prime minister in Parliament has shrunk. Modi's immediate predecessor Manmohan Singh was a lacklustre participant in Parliament. BJP has hinted that it will take the ordinance route on insurance and coal, which fundamentally undermines the place of Parliament.
The other trend is the diminishing importance for various reasons of debate, including the pernicious effect of the anti-defection legislation on dissenting voices and the lack of political incentives for MPs to speak, on the floor of the House. Much of the action now happens in parliamentary committees, which are relatively bipartisan but also opaque. That is not going to change.
Parliament might be functioning better than earlier but there are deep-seated institutional problems that remain unaddressed.