Political System: Parliament

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Political System: Parliament

In India both the prime minister and the cabinet are subject, or "responsible," to control by Parliament. Indians were introduced to the institution of responsible parliamentary government by the British. The lineage of the Parliament of India created by the Constitution in 1950 includes the Indian Councils Act (1861), the Morley-Minto reforms (1909), the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms (1919), and the Government of India Act (1935). These various reforms each represented a gradual increase in the democratization and indigenization of responsible rule in India by the transfer of British imperial power to elected representatives of India, completed with independence and the adoption of parliamentary government modeled on that of Westminster.

The powers of the Indian parliament may be divided into legislative, financial, procedural, governmental, constitution-amending, and constitutive. Parliament enacts the law of the land, at least in theory. In reality, the legislative agenda is controlled by the government and usually rubber stamped by Parliament with the help of tightly maintained party discipline. If it chooses to act with the government, as is almost always the case, Parliament is all-powerful; if it chose to act independently of the government, Parliament would create confusion and unpredictability in the affairs of state; and by voting to act against the executive, Parliament indicates that a government has lost its confidence, bringing the business of that government to a standstill until new elections can be held.

The financial powers of Parliament empower it to raise and spend money as it sees fit, including discussion and approval of the annual budget, which is usually introduced in mid-February. Only Parliament has the authority to levy taxes and spend money from the consolidated fund. Its procedural powers are those that permit Parliament to make rules for the conduct of its own business. Parliament formally controls the reins of government in that the cabinet is required to have the confidence of the lower house, Lok Sabha, and is collectively responsible to Parliament. Under Article 368, Parliament is the main body for amending the Constitution of India. Under its constitutive powers, Parliament can legislate to admit or create new states into the union of India; to create a high court for a union territory, and to extend the jurisdiction of a high court to or restrict it from a union territory; and to create or abolish the upper house for a state of the union, with the consent of its lower house.

The Lok Sabha

The Parliament of India is bicameral. The lower house is the Lok Sabha, or the "House of the People." Its members are elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage. The distribution of seats among the states is roughly in proportion to their population. Thus Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the two most populous states, have 85 and 54 members of Parliament (MPs) respectively, while the smallest states and union territories have only one MP each. Of the 543 elective seats in the thirteenth Lok Sabha (1999–2004), 413 MPs were in the general category, 81 were from scheduled castes (formerly known as "untouchables"), and 49 were from scheduled tribes. Any citizen of India who is at least twenty-five years old may seek election to the Lok Sabha from a constituency in which he or she has resided for a minimum of 180 days. In a reserved constituency, only members of the scheduled castes and tribes may run for office, but all adults within the constituency may vote. The two nominated seats are filled by the president with representatives of the Anglo-Indian community.

The system of voting is the single-member constituency. Each constituency is represented by only one MP in the Lok Sabha. Of those contesting from any constituency, the candidate with the highest number of votes is declared elected, even if the total is well short of a majority. The plurality rather than majority system of voting can produce, and generally has done so, governments that have substantial majorities in Parliament but lack endorsement from a majority of the voters. In 1984, for example, the Congress Party captured 77 percent of seats in Parliament but won only 48 percent of the votes. Conversely, in 1996, a drop of 8.4 percent in the popular vote saw the party's parliamentary representation halved. A proportional representation system would be more representative in a mathematically defined version of democracy. However, under Indian conditions (size, diversity, and complexity), it would almost certainly produce chaos in each general election.

The conduct of elections is entrusted by the Constitution itself to an election commission. The chief election commissioner is an independent official appointed by the president under conditions of service resembling those of senior judges. The tasks of the election commission include designing voting forms suitable for Indian conditions, determining the best dates for holding elections, whether the elections should be held simultaneously, on consecutive days, or at staggered intervals, and so on.

By and large, Parliament is fairly chosen. While individual seats may have been determined by musclemen or bribes, no general election in India has produced an overall result that was not a fair reflection of voter preferences. As with all political systems, the party in government has all the advantages of incumbency when contesting elections. These have not been sufficient to prevent spectacular electoral reverses for the party in power in several elections since 1967, including the elections of 2004. Indeed, in some ways, a notable trend in Indian elections is the anti-incumbency factor: voters seem to punish those in office for their shortcomings and failures as much as they reward newcomers for fresh promises.

In the early years after 1950, many MPs came from a background of activism in the struggle for independence. The first Parliament (1952–1957) was dominated by professionals, especially lawyers. In the thirteenth Lok Sabha (1999–2004), 419 MPs were university graduates, including 30 with Ph.D. degrees. Over 70 percent were between 41 and 65 years old. (The oldest was born in 1913, the youngest in 1968.) In terms of castes, Brahmans are still overrepresented and the lower castes remain underrepresented. But the general trend is toward greater democratization. Such is not the case with regard to gender balance: only 44 of the 543 elected members of the thirteenth Lok Sabha were women.

The term of the Lok Sabha is five years, although in an emergency this may be extended for one year at a time. This has happened only once, after the 1975 "emergency." While Parliament may be dissolved and fresh elections held because a government has lost the confidence of the Lok Sabha, the more common occurrence is for a prime minister to call for new elections when he or she deems it possible to maximize personal or party political gains. For this reason, the exact date for new elections is usually uncertain.

Required to convene at least twice a year, the Lok Sabha normally meets in three sessions each year. In 2002 the budget session met from 15 April to 17 May, the monsoon session from 15 July to 12 August, and the winter session from 18 November to 20 December. The language of parliamentary business is mostly Hindi or English, although a member may use any of the recognized official languages. The official records of parliamentary debates are printed in both English and Hindi.

The legislative process involves three stages, corresponding to the British three readings of bills: a bill's introduction, its consideration, and its enactment into law. At its first reading, the bill is introduced, along with an explanation of its aims and purposes. After the second reading, a bill may be referred to a select committee, circulated for public response, or taken up for immediate consideration. The most substantial consideration of any bill takes place in committee. The Lok Sabha operates with the aid of about a dozen committees of between twenty and twenty-five members. The composition of the committees is determined by the speaker and the chief whip with due regard to respective party strengths in the house. No minister who is in charge of a bill being considered by committee is permitted to participate in the deliberations of that committee, which helps to insulate the committee proceedings from undue executive influence.

The select committee reports back either unanimously or with a majority recommendation and a minority note of dissent. The bill is then considered in the house clause by clause, with members allowed to introduce amendments. Once all clauses have been dealt with, the bill has successfully crossed the report stage, and is listed for its third and final reading. At this stage, only tidying-up amendments are permitted, and the bill is put to a vote. If approved, and when formally authenticated as such by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the bill is sent to the second house, where the entire procedure is repeated. When both houses of Parliament have passed an identical version of a bill, it is presented to the president for formal assent, and becomes law upon receiving his assent.

"Ordinary" bills can be introduced in either house, the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha. They must be passed by both houses before they can be sent to the president, and they only become law once they have been signed by the president. "Money" bills can be introduced only in the Lok Sabha ("no taxation without representation!"). While they may be taken up for discussion in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house cannot refuse assent to money bills. Nor may it frustrate the passage of a money bill by the simple expedient of procrastination: the bill is deemed to have passed if not returned by the Rajya Sabha within fourteen days.

The daily and sessional business of government is decided by the cabinet and its parliamentary affairs committee under the chairmanship of the chief whip. In parliamentary systems, party discipline in the legislature is far tighter than in presidential systems, and is maintained by "whips" for each party. A senior MP is chosen as the chief whip and is assisted by other whips. Their function is to maintain party discipline in the house, especially when it comes to voting on issues that are important to the party. Failure to obey instructions can lead to expulsion from the party.

Although any individual member of Parliament may introduce a private member's bill, most of the Lok Sabha's time is in fact devoted to dealing with government business. Individual members of Parliament can exert influence more in party forums than in Parliament itself. A private bill will have little prospect of enactment, but does help an MP to reassure, appease, or deflect criticism from constituents. Its main purpose often is, indeed, to play to the gallery.

Like the speech from the throne, each session of the Lok Sabha is opened with a presidential address. The quorum for the Lok Sabha to be able to meet is one-tenth of its membership. The daily session opens at 11:00 a.m. with a question hour, which is strongly reminiscent of the British tradition. Some twenty to twenty-five questions are asked, answered, parried, or successfully evaded each day. The form of the initial question is tightly disciplined, but supplementary questions are generally given fairly wide latitude by the Speaker. As in all parliamentary systems, question hour can break or make a minister. An opposition backbencher can make her or his mark by displaying grasp of detail and mastery of debating skills, and might then be made a minister with a change of government; a serving minister can perform so poorly as to become a liability for the government in Parliament and the nation at large, and may be dropped from the cabinet.

The conduct of the house is in the hands of the Speaker. Selected by the governing party for formal election by the house and expected to conduct parliamentary business with fairness and impartiality, the Speaker recognizes members, keeps order, and has other duties that are required of presiding officers. The Speaker may not vote on an issue before the Lok Sabha, but can exercise a casting vote in the event of a tie on any motion being put to the vote.

Rajya Sabha

The Rajya Sabha (Council of States), the upper house, has 250 members, of whom 238 represent each of India's states and union territories; the remaining 12 are nominated by the president, acting on the advice of cabinet. The latter are chosen on the basis of their special knowledge or skills in the arts and sciences, or in order to rectify a serious underrepresentation in parliament of any particular group, or in an exercise of political patronage to reward the party faithful or major financial donors. The distribution of Rajya Sabha seats among states is roughly in proportion to their populations, with some effort at equalization. Bihar, for example, has 54 seats in the Lok Sabha and 22 in the Rajya Sabha; Himachal Pradesh has 4 seats in the lower house and 3 in the upper. Members of state legislative assemblies elect Rajya Sabha representatives for their states on a proportional representation system.

Members of India's upper house, as well as its lower house, are called members of Parliament (MPs). Rajya Sabha MPs are elected for six-year terms, with a biennial turnover of one-third of the house. Unlike the Lok Sabha, the upper house is not subject to dissolution. The quorum of the Rajya Sabha is 25 (one-tenth of the total membership), with decisions being made by a majority of members actually present and voting. The presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha is the vice-president of India.

There were three sets of reasons behind adopting a bicameral legislature for the union of India. First, the Rajya Sabha, as its name implies, was to be the custodian of states' rights in a federal polity. Second, it provides an opportunity and a forum for second thoughts and wiser counsel, even after the passage of a bill by the Lok Sabha. And third, it enables a bill (other than financial bills) to be introduced in Parliament even when the Lok Sabha is not in session. As a result of this sensible procedure, much of the preliminary debate and work on the bill can be completed by the time the Lok Sabha reconvenes.

In theory, the Rajya Sabha provides the opportunity to bring into Parliament competent, skilled personnel who may not be prepared to face the uncertain rigors of political campaigns. They can be appointed to the Rajya Sabha and be inducted into cabinet without having to go through an election. In practice, however, the Rajya Sabha can provide a backdoor entry into Parliament for unelectable or defeated candidates whose loyalty to the party is believed sufficient for access to power.

The Opposition

The opposition in a parliamentary democracy is expected to play the role of an alternative government, complete with a "shadow" prime minister- and cabinet-in-waiting. Because of the large number of political parties in India, the status of the leader of the opposition can be conferred only on the leader of a party that has at least fifty seats in the Lok Sabha. The leader of the opposition in the thirteenth parliament was Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, widow of the assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the heir apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. Following the success of the Congress Party in the 2004 elections, she would have become prime minister had she been willing to do so. (A naturalized citizen, her foreign birth would not have barred her from office.)

Opposition parties may not have many MPs in the house, and their claims to be a government-in-waiting may be utter fiction. Nonetheless, by their existence and their voice in parliament they express the diversity of opinions in a country as large and varied as India. Party discipline ensures that the opposition loses when the votes on any motion are tallied, but statements in Parliament are heard in the country at large and are often listened to within the ranks of the ruling party. This is particularly relevant in a country like India, where the major parties are not sharply distinguished by ideological differences. This has been especially noticeable with the proliferation of the increasingly influential independent electronic media during the 1990s. Although the debate in Parliament is ostensibly between the government and the opposition, it can also serve to structure the internal debates within an omnibus ruling party. This has been a distinctive feature of Indian politics.

Ramesh Thakur

See alsoFederalism and Center-State Relations


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Handbook for Lok Sabha Members. New Delhi: Lok Sabha Secretariat, 1998.

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Hatchard, John, ed. Parliamentary Supremacy and Judicial Independence: A Commonwealth Approach. London: Cavendish Publishing, 1999.

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