By Sarah Watson —
In early November rumors swirled that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration would cancel or sharply curtail the annual Winter Session of India’s Parliament. The possibility brought pointed condemnation from critics of the government, who saw it as yet another sign that the administration has little interest in democratic processes. Parliament will open late — December 15 — and for a short (14-day) session. However, a closer look at data for the past six years shows that the Modi administration’s treatment of Parliament matches that of its predecessor. If Parliament is marginalized in modern India, more than one party bears the blame.
Finding reliable hard data on Parliament is surprisingly difficult. PRS Legislative Research publishes semi-regular reports on the functioning of the legislative branch, but they do not exist for every year and track different statistics from year to year. The most comprehensive source is the Statistical Yearbook published by the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, but some of its data ends with the 2016 Budget Session. The Journal of Parliamentary Information (JPI), a quarterly journal published by the Lok Sabha itself, includes a brief precis of the most recent session of the Lok Sabha, including number of days seated, number of bills passed, and time spent on legislative business. Only 25 issues, dating back to March 2011, are available online, though these at least provide comprehensive information for the years 2011 through 2016.
JPI data and public sources allow us to compare days seated data for three years under Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and three years under the preceding Congress government. Until this year, the BJP Parliaments have been in line with the Congress parliaments in terms of days seated. In fact, 2017 does not seem like so much of an outlier when we consider that nearly half of the 2013 Winter Session took place in January 2014, bringing the 2013 calendar year total down to 65 days.
Recent parliaments also do not show a decline in legislation passed. In fact, 2015 was one of the most productive years in recent memory, going purely by the number of bills passed in the Lok Sabha. Again with the exception of 2014, an election year, it was 2012 that was the real dud for legislation.
The final, and perhaps most important, method of calculating parliamentary efficiency is the productivity measure, or the percentage of designated seating time that was actually spent presenting and debating legislation, voting, or participating in question hour. Because the party in power is largely not responsible for disrupting Parliament and has limited control over whether the opposition chooses to disrupt the session, productivity is a less direct measure of the seated government’s interest in legislating. Nonetheless it is still a vital counterbalance to statistics such as number of days seated; a Parliament that sits for weeks but is disrupted every day will get less policy work done than a focused Parliament sitting for a few days.
The data show that BJP Lok Sabhas have been significantly more productive than in the last years of the Congress government, averaging 83.3 percent per year compared to 54.8 percent. The last five regular sessions under Congress (Monsoon Session 2012 to Winter Session 2013) were remarkably unproductive, never passing 60 percent. In contrast, BJP Lok Sabhas have fallen below the 60 percent mark only twice, during the 2015 Monsoon Session and the 2016 Winter Session.
The data thus display remarkable continuity under Congress and BJP administrations. Unfortunately, that continuity is of a downward trend; as the Statistical Yearbook shows, the number of days seated per Lok Sabha session each year underwent a steady decline following the 4th Lok Sabha, although it stabilized in the late 1990s.
Furthermore, there is no question that the Modi government could do more with Parliament. Given the scale of India’s challenges, the Lok Sabha’s legislative opportunities in 2017 are not inspiring; of the 23 pending Bills, only 11 were introduced this year and thus can be considered ‘live’ bills with a chance of passage. These 11 include a bill to establish a National Sports University; a bill repealing outdated old laws; a bill amending the law on eviction of squatters from public property; and a bill clarifying the notice requirements when the central government requisitions immovable property.
What could Parliament be doing? Our Reforms Scorecard tracks progress on 30 crucial reforms outstanding on the day Modi took office, 21 of which remain incomplete. Some of these, like removal of foreign direct investment caps in most sectors, can be done by administrative fiat. But other critical reforms require legislative action. These include rationalization of India’s labor laws; increasing foreign investment in the insurance sector; amending the Companies Act to make it easier to start a business; and instituting reforms in the financial sector along the lines of those recommended by the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission.
It is unfair to say that the Modi administration is uniquely intent on governing without Parliament. Still, this doesn’t mean that Modi is making the most of India’s legislative institutions. Parliament can be a messy, frustrating thorn in the side of India’s governments, but no government can respond to India’s challenges without it.
Sarah Watson is an associate fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.