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Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper 23: The Indian Parliament as an Institution of Accountability

21 Mar 2006

In 2002, when the Indian Parliament celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Indian commentators rued the palpable decline of what Jawaharlal Nehru had termed as the “majesty” of Parliament. With much of Parliament’s time wasted on rowdiness and disorder, and theatrics replacing debate, there are serious concerns about whether Parliament has become dysfunctional.

According to the authors, over the years there has been a decline in the effectiveness of Parliament as an institution of accountability and oversight. The instruments that Parliament can use for accountability - motions on the floor, oversight powers, the committee system - are increasingly being rendered dysfunctional. The fact that the Indian economy is globalizing has also eroded the power of Parliament. The Indian state, like many other states, is restructuring its regulatory framework with more powers being delegated to non-elected institutions. This process of delegation can increase transparency and accountability, but parliamentary oversight of these institutions remains very weak.

The weakness of the Indian Parliament has often slowed down legislation. But it has also given the executive more powers. The authors argue that these are manifest in the increasing number of ordinances that have been used as a substitute for legislation and weak financial oversight. One would expect the oversight function to be stronger in an era where there is widespread disenchantment with government and resource scarcity is acute - rather than the converse. Yet there is an ever-growing gap between the complex demands that modern legislation places upon MPs on the one hand, and their capacity and inclination for attending to that legislation on the other. The profusion of political parties in Parliament, most of which are institutionally weak, has also increased the barriers to collective action.

But if this paper has any implications for these issues, it is to emphasize that, to a large degree, Parliament’s inability to come to terms with these challenges is as much of its own making as the product of any general structural changes in Indian politics, or the economy. The authors contend that the Indian Parliament has self-abdicated many of its functions. For example, the authors find no reason whatsoever, other than indifference, to explain why the committee oversight system is so weak. They assert that Indian politics has become a lot more fractious and fragmented. In such an environment, the imperatives of electoral and party politics give politicians great incentives to delay important legislation just for the sake of delay. The delay in legislation does not mean that there is better qualitative improvement in legislation. It simply means that Parliament is more an oppositional space rather than a forum for genuine debate. There is also a growing sense that for individual MPs, doing good work in Parliament is not linked to any political rewards, either in their constituencies or within their political parties. This reduces the incentives for good parliamentary performance.

While it is true that legislation is becoming increasingly complex and demands a set of technical skills few parliamentarians possess, much of the inattention to legislative matters is due to Parliament’s own predilections and incentive structures. Parliament is becoming a less effective voice on fiscal management, on the economy, on social policy and on the terms on which India is integrating into the global economy, because of self-abdication and not because of uncontrollable exogenous factors.

According to the authors, in so far as structural changes in Indian politics have led to an adverse self-selection in who enters politics, and thereby the calibre of persons likely to enter Parliament, one cannot be too optimistic about the capacity of Parliament to rejuvenate itself.

Devesh Kapur is Associate Professor of Government at Harvard University, United States, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta is Professor of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.

Order DGHR PP 23 from UNRISD, 36 pages, 2006; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.