NEW DELHI: Top world leaders during their recent state visits have hailed India’s thriving democracy, but proceedings in the nation’s parliament have hit a new low.
Lawmakers headed for their winter break on Monday following the least productive session in decades after the opposition forced adjournments for 22 business days in a row, allowing no legislation to be passed.
A total of 32 laws, including one on free and compulsory education, another to reserve a third of all seats for women, and more than a dozen economic bills were scheduled to be discussed but received no attention.
For weeks, opposition lawmakers have stormed the floors of both houses of parliament, waved their papers in the air and shouted at the speakers to press their demand for a cross-party investigation into a massive telecom scandal.
The picture of dysfunction in the grandiose circular parliament building was broken only briefly during the winter session: when a visiting US President Barack Obama came to town and addressed lawmakers.
Obama, like British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, lavished praise on India’s democracy which he and others feel makes the country a natural ally of the West.
Local analysts have come to a less flattering conclusion and worry that the world’s biggest democracy has become its least productive.
Members of the upper and lower houses spent just six percent of their time sitting during the winter session which began on November 9, according to PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank.
According to PRS, lawmakers spent only seven hours in session out of the 138 scheduled working hours.
“Sometimes, business not proceeding also yields results,” said senior opposition leader L.K. Advani from the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the end of the fruitless session on Monday.
The BJP and allies sought to profit from public outrage over the botched sale of 2G telecom licences in 2008 by former minister A. Raja which the national auditor says could have cost the country up to 40 billion dollars.
The campaign of obstruction by the BJP has kept the media focused on the subject, but the protest has failed to secure a cross-party probe and has further tarnished the reputation of parliament.
“The winter session can safely go down in the history of parliament proceedings as a disgraceful session hijacked by stubborn lawmakers,” said R.K. Bagga, a political analyst working with the Indian Political Research unit at Delhi University.
“The lawmakers have forgotten that we live in a parliamentary democracy and there will be no democracy if the parliament stops functioning,” he said.
C.V. Madhukar, director of PRS, told AFP that the deadlock was “very disappointing.”
“It certainly doesn’t bode well for our democracy,” he added. “Not a single penny should be paid to the lawmakers. The elected representatives are paid to work, discuss complex bills, not to make noise and waste the country’s resources.”
Because of the proliferation of protests in recent years, observers worry that even when the parliament does function key legislation does not receive the scrutiny it merits.
In the final days — or sometimes the final hours — of any session, lawmakers often vote through numerous bills without any genuine debate.
In the 2010 budget session, the lower house cleared five bills in 15 minutes.
At the conclusion of the winter session on Monday, the speaker of the upper house Hamid Ansari lamented that rules about shouting slogans and obstructing proceedings “were consistently ignored”.
“The rules were obeyed only when obituaries were read,” he said, adding that members should “introspect” on the session’s record and the distinction between “dissent and remonstration, agitation and disruption”.
Sweaminathan Aiyar, a consulting editor for The Economic Times newspaper, wrote at the weekend that the rules for political protests appeared to have changed — to the detriment of the country.
“The (ruling party) Congress itself resorts to the same disruptive tactics when it is in opposition,” Aiyar wrote.
“So all parties have come to a disgraceful unwritten agreement that the right to paralyse parliament is a fundamental political right of MPs, taking precedence over established norms of democratic functioning.”