Dr. Ajit Phadnis
Humanities and Social Sciences Area, IIM Indore
Email: email@example.com; Phone: 0731-2439413
The fact that legislatures in India are bordering on dysfunction needs no elaboration. Media reports of every passing session of parliament is replete with mentions of how the session was disrupted and who is to blame for it. The recently concluded budget session was a pertinent instance where nearly 80% of parliamentary time was lost due to disruption.
The question then is why is studying legislative dysfunction important? The most perceptible impact of disruptions is that the passing of important bills get delayed. This point is well illustrated by the trajectory taken by the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill. First introduced in Lok Sabha in March 2011 when the UPA II was in power, the bill thereafter got swept under the carpet by a series of disruptive manoeuvres made by the then opposition NDA. The oppositional pattern persisted even after a change of government to NDA in 2014. Finally, the bill was passed in September 2016, more than five years after its legislative inception. The GST is just one example of a large number of economic and social reforms that are facing recurring delays or have been even been dropped due to unyielding disruption.
But at a broader level legislative dysfunction can have more insidious and longer-term implications for a democracy. If the legislature does not perform its functions its powers tend to get usurped by other constitutional bodies such as the executive and the judiciary. This has, perhaps already begun to happen with the increasing reports of ‘over-reach’ of judiciary into policy-making and the rising propensity of the executive to resort to ordinances in lieu of the ‘tougher’ legislative route. There is an inherent problem with either the judiciary or the executive getting into policy-making because neither of them can make claims to ‘representativeness’, a quality that only the legislature is endowed with. If the current trend persists democratic decision-making in India may soon lose the character of a government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’ as famously described by Abraham Lincoln.
To be fair India is not alone in grappling with the challenge of legislative dysfunction. This seems to be fairly pervasive across many legislatures, each legislature having evolved its own distinctive style of obstruction by adapting to the legislative rules. For instance, the ‘disruptive’ method, which entails physical obstruction of legislative proceedings by shouting slogans or raising banners, is frequent in legislatures like India where the institutional rules present no other opportunity for a minority party to obstruct a majority proposal. As opposed to this, in the US Senate, the legislative rules present minority parties with the instrument of the ‘filibuster’ by which they can block majority proposals. Filibusters may appear more ‘civil’ and ‘legitimate’ than the disruption, but the consequence of a disruption or a filibuster are equally potent.
There has been substantive research on legislative obstruction in the context of other democracies particularly the US. In India, on the other hand, research in the area is still in its infancy, which presents tremendous scope to leverage on the intellectual progress on the subject to improve our understanding of disruptions. This formed the broad motivation for embarking on a comparative research project on legislative obstruction, a subset of whose findings will be published as a forthcoming article in an edited volume.
In the article, I craft out a set of seven expectations with regard to the timing of a legislative obstruction. The question I ask is: How and when do opposition parties decide when to obstruct legislative business? In response to this question I argue that if disruptions are purposively directed by opposition party leaders, then disruptions should be high when the incentives to disrupt are high. Conversely, they should be lower when the incentives for disrupting are lower.
I identify three types of incentives that guide opposition party leaders’ decisions to disrupt: (a) The Electoral incentive (b) The Legislative incentive and (c) The Public Opinion incentive. The electoral incentive suggests that disruption should be high in a parliament session that just precedes a state or national election. This is because opposition parties have high incentive to highlight the problems of the government before an impending election, and disruption is the most ‘cost-effective’ means of doing so. Similarly, for the legislative incentive I argue that the tendency to disrupt would be high when the government introduces a ‘major’ bill. By obstructing the bill, the opposition ensures that the government faces difficulty in achieving its electoral promise. Finally, I contend that opposition parties are sensitive to public opinion when deciding on disruption. If the opposition party has fared well in a recent state election, it perceives that the public opinion is supportive of them and is thereby encouraged to disrupt more.
The above presents a sample of the seven expectations that I integrate into an ‘Agency theory of disruption’. I, thereafter, test the expectations born out of the theory by using data on disruptions during the parliamentary term of the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14). I find that the data shows a good match with my theoretical expectation. For thirteen of the fifteen parliamentary sessions that constitute the 15th Lok Sabha, the expected disruption and the actual disruption are close. For the two sessions where the data differed markedly from expectations I conducted a qualitative study to understand the reasons for the deviation from theory.
I believe the study has two implications from the perspective of practitioners. Firstly, the analysis could be used to predict when disruption is likely to be high or low. This information would be useful for practitioners that wish to strategize on when a particular legislation may be introduced in parliament so that it receives a smooth sailing. Secondly, the findings of the study present pointers for parliamentary reform by getting at the roots of parliamentary dysfunction i.e. the incentives behind a disruption. For instance, the analysis shows that disruptions are positively correlated with the timing of state or national elections. This implies that frequent elections to various state governments present recurring incentives for disruptions in parliament. Flowing from this finding, the article lends ‘cautious’ support to the recent proposal for introducing simultaneous elections for the national and state assemblies, which would reduce the frequency of state elections that fall in the interim of a national election cycle.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: Phadnis, A. (forthcoming) Benefits from chaos: The political incentive behind the disruption of parliament, in Constitutional and Democratic Institutions in India: A Critical Analysis edited by Sudha Pai. Orient Blackswan.