After a prolonged hue and cry and threats of being nullified, Parliament’s Winter Session has begun from December 15 and will run till January 5, 2018. India’s Parliament holds three sessions every year. The Budget Session, being the longest one, is held towards the beginning of the year, then the Monsoon Session in July-August and finally the Winter Session in November-December. Constitutionally, Article 85 only mandates that there should not be a gap of more than six months between any two parliamentary sessions.
Usually the Winter Sessions begin in November and is held till December each year, but in 2003, 2008 and 2013, due to elections in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Mizoram, the session did not begin in November but after the last polling day. In 2008, the Winter Session did start early in October, but was halted between October 24 and December 9 due to elections. The NDA was in government in 2003, while in both 2008 and 2013 it was the UPA.
This disparity in parliamentary proceedings can be attributed to state elections. It is therefore necessary to improve the ratio between governance and campaigning at both the national and state levels.
Parliamentary sessions will be inevitably delayed unless reforms in both the electoral schedule and the Lok Sabha are implemented. The constant juggling of roles in politicians’ lives renders them unable to perform their duties and obligations in a cogent manner. The finance minister saying that the government would ensure a regular Winter Session but would not want it to clash with the December 9-18 Gujarat Assembly elections is a testimony to the fact that ceaseless election cycles in our country cause havoc in governance. The recent Gujarat Assembly elections saw senior leaders of major political parties engrossed in it, leaving them unable to perform many vital constitutional duties. Continual elections are not only a distraction from governance but also prevent the Opposition parties from effectively playing their role in Parliament. This continuum adds to uncertainty in parliamentary proceedings, leading to delays in matters of urgency.
The functioning of the country is impacted by the functioning of its legislature. A declining trend has been observed in the sitting days of Parliament. The Lok Sabha met for an average of 130 days in a year during the 1950s, and these were further reduced to 70 days in the 2000s. The National Commission to Review Working of the Constitution recommended that the Lok Sabha should have 120 sittings in a year, and the Rajya Sabha to have 100 sittings, but despite that, this year we will have the shortest Winter Session in 20 years.
There is no fixed legislative calendar in place for India unlike Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, where parliaments are in session throughout the year. Every year begins in these countries with the formalisation of a sittings calendar, and other legislative allied businesses are programmed in accordingly. In 1955, similar efforts were tried in India too, with the Lok Sabha recommending a calendar of sittings, but in vain. Having Parliament sit on known dates would enable proper planning and policy work.
Some State Legislative Assemblies have tried addressing this disparity by specifying a minimum number of working days in their procedural rules. The Odisha Assembly has a mandatory provision specifying the number of days it would meet. Uttar Pradesh too has a provision to ensure best efforts for working out meetings for a specified number of days.
There seems to be a growing consensus within the country on holding simultaneous elections. These include credible institutions and individuals. After the 1999 Law Commission recommendation and the parliamentary standing committee report on simultaneous elections, the Niti Aayog has suggested that for the purpose of easing the political and technical issues of holding simultaneous elections in one go, that these could be considered in two phases. Phase 1 thus could be in sync with the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — in April-May 2019; while Phase 2 could be held midway in the new Lok Sabha’s term, approximately 30 months after Phase 1 — say around October-November 2021.
The idea of “one nation, two elections”, with state elections bunched around either the national election or a mid-term cycle, would tackle many hurdles in an efficient manner. It would be cost-effective, avoid interruption in the delivery of essential services and would nevertheless provide broad public opinion to the Central government of the day without unnecessary distractions attributed to state elections. It will enable improvement in India’s abysmally low ratio of governance and campaigning due to ceaseless elections.
Globally, a similar structure is observed in South Africa, with national and provincial elections held simultaneously for five years, and municipal elections are held two years later. Sweden too holds elections to its national legislature, provincial legislatures and municipal bodies on a fixed date — the second Sunday in September — for four years. (The last one took place on September 14, 2014 and the forthcoming one is due on September 9, 2018.) And the United States too has a two-cycle election calendar, much like what has been mentioned here.
The issue of continual elections and the lack of legislative calendar are ample justification for reforming the Lok Sabha and electoral rules. Other contentious issues such as the legislative agenda being determined by consensus in the business advisory committee (BAC), which is not transparent, the lack of number-based rules for initiating motions, and the paucity of time to MPs for preparing — that is, gaps between the notice of legislative agenda, circulation of papers and debate — all need immediate ratification. Private members’ bills are denied adequate time as well as, by convention, since the early 1970s have not been passed.
These ailments need a cure sooner, rather than later, in order to save the legislative setup of our country and to reaffirm the belief and conviction of citizens in our vibrant democracy and its efficacy between elections.