Thiruvananthapuram, September 11, 2013
Vice President M Hamid Ansari addressing the special sitting of the Kerala Legislative Assembly on the occasion of its 125th anniversary celebrations in Thiruvananthapuram on September 11, 2013. Kerala Governor Nikhil Kumar and Kerala Legislative Assembly Speaker G. Karthikeyan are also seen.
Vice-President M Hamid Ansari today regretted that, notwithstanding solemn commitments by political parties, time continued to be lost in Parliament in disruptions and at the expense of listed business, both of accountability and of legislation.
"These disruptions take place with the knowledge, and at the instance, of political parties and their leaderships and are undertaken to attract public attention, force the executive to undertake the course of action proposed by them and demonstrate their ability to logjam the functioning of the legislature," he said in his address at a special sitting of the Kerala Legislative Assembly to commemorate its 125th anniversary.
"Ours is an open society in which the Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression. This includes the right to argue, to debate, and to agitate. The unstated major premise is that the exercise of this right cannot be arbitrary, cannot be at the expense of the same right by fellow citizens," he said.
"The boundaries of freedom do get transgressed when agitation takes the place of debate, when their respective venues get transposed, when another member of the legislature is prevented from enjoying the right that the agitating members claim for themselves. It is for this reason that all legislatures make rules of procedure for their functioning," he said.
Mr Ansari said the unfortunate reality today was that these rules of procedure were being violated brazenly and with impunity.
"Forgotten is the simple truth, applicable to all citizens including legislators, that rules are to be observed, not discarded or subverted. A corrective, in the shape of disciplinary action by the Presiding Officers, is hampered if not made dysfunctional by the refusal of the legislative body or a good segment of it to support the Chair and ensure civility and compliance by the defaulting member. The alternative, of physical eviction, is possible with individuals, less so with groups; it does not enhance the dignity of the legislative body and is undesirable to contemplate," he said.
He said there was a case for legislative bodies in the country to be dignified assemblies conducting themselves with decorum and restraint.
"Such a requirement is not far fetched since it only requires going back in living memory to the initiators of our system. It would be in step with the practice in other parliamentary democracies and would not single us out as an aberration," he said.
Mr Ansari said there was an imperative need for correctives in other areas of work, too, including implementation of the decision of November 2001 to increase the number of working days to 110, 90 and 50 for Parliament, larger and smaller states, respectively.
He said this would make available sufficient time for scrutiny of legislative proposals, discussion on issues of public concern raised by members, and overall accountability of the executive.
He said the rules for observance of parliamentary etiquette and norms of civility need to be made stricter and enforced more stringently.
"An effort needs to be made to appreciate that excitability, decibel intensity and verbosity does not add to the strength of the argument or the dignity of the legislature. A legislator’s oath of office, ‘to faithfully discharge the duty upon which I am about to enter’ could perhaps be amplified to include observance of rules of procedure of the legislative body concerned," he said.
"The compelling urge to articulate views on matters of recent happening by seeking the suspension of the Question Hour can be channelled into procedures either by shifting the Question Hour or by dispensing with it altogether since only a few, not exceeding five or six are actually taken up and written answers are in any case given even if the question hour does not function," he said.
The Vice-President, who is also the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, said more time should be allocated for discussion of matters of public interest. This would only be possible when more time is made available by increasing the number of working days.
He said the committee system could be strengthened by having a higher attendance requirement and by the induction of experts in an advisory capacity.
"The present practice of exempting ministers from appearance before the committees should be reviewed. As in other parliamentary democracies, the examination of witnesses (but not the finalisation of reports) should be open to the public. This would make the public better aware of this important aspect of the work of legislatures," he said.
Mr Ansari said that, while legislators do make required disclosures of their assets and liabilities, this should be supplemented by more stringent "conflict of interest" procedures as are practiced in other parliamentary democracies.
"These, and other procedural correctives, are within the realm of the possible, capable of being agreed upon and implemented provided there is a commitment in word and deed on the part of all concerned to reiterate their faith in the proper functioning of the legislature as an essential ingredient of parliamentary democracy," he said.
Mr Ansari also referred to the procedural deficiencies noticed in the country's electoral system.
In the legislatures, he pointed out that the time made available notionally for parliament or assembly sessions has contracted.
"Record of many decades also shows that the notional time allocation is different from the time actually utilised for conduct of business. The reason for this is that uniquely Indian contribution to parliamentary practice known as disruption. It has been a source of concern for many years now and is inviting public ire," he said.
"Conferences of Presiding Officers in May and September 1992 addressed the problem as did the Golden Jubilee Session of the Lok Sabha in 1997. Solemn commitments were made unanimously on each occasion; passage of time was to show that neither the solemnity nor the unanimity had the slightest impact on actual behaviour in legislative chambers," he said.
Another effort, on a wider scale, was made in November 2001, which sought to diagnose the ailment in all its manifestations and identified what it called ‘major contributory factors behind this trend of disorderly conduct by members in legislature’.
These were identified as:
1. non-availability of adequate time and consequent frustration of members over perceived inadequacy of opportunities to raise matters to their grievances on the floor of the House;
2. misgivings created at times by seemingly unresponsive attitude adopted by government and retaliatory posture by treasury benches;
3. disinclination, at times, on the part of the leadership of legislature parties to adhere to parliamentary norms and to discipline their members;
4. absence of prompt and proper action against erring members under Rules of Procedure; and
5. lack of sufficient training and orientation, especially of new members, in parliamentary procedures and etiquette.
"The conference resolved, apart from pious rededication to principles, that ‘immediate steps be taken to ensure a minimum of 110 days of sittings of Parliament and 90 and 50 days of sittings of the Legislatures of big and small states respectively, if necessary, through appropriate constitutional amendments’. It also recommended ‘automatic suspension’ for specified periods of Members guilty of grave misconduct. None of this was acted upon except for the incorporation in 2001 of automatic suspension in Lok Sabha (but not Rajya Sabha) rules. It has been used for the first time only in recent weeks," he said.
The function marked the end of the 125th anniversary celebrations of the legislative tradition in Kerala, initiated in 1888 by the then Travancore State. It was continued when Travancore and Cochin were merged and was put on a qualitatively different footing when elections to the state Assembly were held in December 1951 under the Constitution of India and further strengthened when the Malabar region was added to the Kerala pursuant to the States Reorganisation Act of 1956.
Mr Ansari said the purpose of a legislative body is to deliberate, legislate, and seek accountability from the executive.
"The records of the sessions of the Kerala Legislative Assembly indicate that this has been done in adequate measure. This is a tribute to the commitment of generations of legislators, to the political awareness of the electorate and to their adherence to the principles of parliamentary democracy.
"Another characteristic of Kerala’s political scene is its adherence to the classic pattern of two political combinations. This is at variance with the fragmentation in evidence in many other states as also in the Centre.
"And, of course, mention must be made of Kerala’s record of progressive legislation and its impressive, very impressive, achievements in the fields of education and health. Located in the south-western corner of the country, Kerala can be looked up to as a model in many areas of national activity," he said.
Mr Ansari noted that a survey done last year gave India a rating of 9.58 on electoral process and pluralism, 9.41 for civil liberties, 7.50 for functioning government, 6.11 for political participation and 5.0 for political culture. The survey gave Indian democracy an overall score of 7.52 and a global ranking of 38.
"Clearly, the scope for improvement beckons us even as we celebrate our successes," he added.
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