Lawmakers don’t question laws in part because anti-defection rules snuff out all dissent

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    Parliament and legislative assemblies should but won’t pay any heed to CJI NV Ramana’s observation that rush-job legislations end up becoming a millstone around the judiciary’s neck. Bills are passed frequently without Houses in functioning order or without allowing legislators to speak on details of the proposed law or without threadbare scrutiny by House committees. Laws badly drafted by bureaucrats escape lawmakers’ scrutiny and the lack of clarity spawns copious and long-drawn litigation.

    Proper scrutiny means investment of time. The first Lok Sabha averaged 135 sittings a year; the 16th Lok Sabha – the one before the current House – averaged 66 sittings. The rot is even deeper in state legislative assemblies. According to PRS Legislative Research, UP, Bengal and Kerala, respectively, annually averaged 24, 40 and 53 assembly sittings and 100, 122 and 306 functional hours between 2017 and 2019. Given that UP and Bengal assemblies elect 403 and 294 members, respectively, such paltry working hours mean individual legislators, even when inclined to do so, don’t have adequate time to hone their law-making skills or to participate in legislative debates. The worrying thing is state assemblies pass hugely consequential laws, for example, on inter-faith marriage, that are subject to no legislative interrogation.

    The problem is part of a broader process that’s devaluing legislative debate, and the root of it is the 1985 anti-defection law that demands MPs and MLAs obey party whips. What was intended to stop shopping of legislators has ended up silencing them. Governing party MPs and MLAs cannot, even if they seriously want to, question bills drafted by the executive, nor can opposition MPs and MLAs make common cause with treasury benches if that means defying opposition leadership. The irrelevance of non-ministers and backbenchers other than for their votes sharply contrasts to legislative functioning in the UK and US. In both these democracies, individual legislators frequently dissent over bills and even policies of their party leadership, and sometimes force changes. If a party is in office because it has a majority of legislators, those legislators should have meaningful roles – in India, they have been reduced to ‘ayes’ or ‘nos’.

    Of course, there’s dissent in Indian politics – but over access to power and its perks, not over principles of laws. BS Yediyurappa is no longer BJP’s Karnataka CM and Punjab’s Congress CM Amarinder Singh has Navjot Singh Sidhu to contend with because dissenters convinced party leaderships that they can sabotage electoral chances. Thoughtful rebellion has little chance in Indian politics.

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    This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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