The politics of parliamentary disruption


The politics of parliamentary disruption

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Prof. Ajay Pandey


Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

—Edmund Burke, Irish orator, philosopher and politician (1729-1797) in his speech to the electors of Bristol on 3 November 1774.

It is moot whether most of us believe or expect from our legislators what Edmund Burke laid out as expectations from the representatives in a parliamentary democracy. But if commentaries on the recently-concluded monsoon session of Parliament are any indicator, then it seems that most Indians are worried about the time lost due to disruptions in the proceedings. Concens over the loss of time and the inability to transact legislative business led the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to start an online signature campaign asking parliamentarians to end the logjam.

As can be expected, the debate on the disruptions have taken two distinct forms: (a) apportioning blame for the disruption and (b) criticizing the use of disruption as a form of protest and opposition in Parliament. While the former debate is expected to be partisan, the latter subject is of interest to everyone concened about Indian democracy. Veteran politicians and political commentators alike have noted that debates during the 1950s and 1960s used to be livelier and parliamentary disruption was not used for expressing dissent or opposition.

It is corroborated by official statistics that the proportion of time lost to disruption has been increasing. The loss of time, just below 10% during the 10th Lok Sabha (1991-1996), reached a record high of 40% during the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2014).

Interestingly, this period corresponds to the significant increase in penetration of mass media in society (including direct coverage of parliamentary proceedings on TV) and the passage of anti-defection law.

Parliamentary disruptions pose two interesting questions. First, are parliamentary disruptions unambiguously detrimental to democracy, or do they serve some function? Assuming that disruptions weaken the Indian democracy, the second question worth pondering over is what institutional incentives work in favour of disruptions rather than debate. The mainstream opinion is usually against parliamentary disruptions, since disruptions are seen to not only undermine the democratic role of legislatures, but also affect govenance by the executive arm of the state.

The role of legislators or representatives is to debate the appropriateness of legislation, and the disruptions not only delay legislative business, but also allow little time for debates.

Disruptions also contribute to undermining the respect representatives ought to have in the eyes of the citizens. It is also widely known that disruptions in India are often not caused by the actions of individual legislators but by the coordinated action of a party to which the disrupting members belong.

Parliamentary disruptions have been defended by the opposition, now as well as in the past, as a means to counter arrogance of the ruling dispensation (theoretically alluding to the “tyranny of the majority” problem), as a means to highlight matters of public interest (particularly constituents, existing or potential), and even as an opportunity for legislators to express dissent!

At the core of the rise in disruptions, whether in Parliament or in state legislatures, is the belief among the parties and their legislators that their interest is better served by disruptions than debates. This is in marked contrast to the behaviour exhibited by most of the other functioning democracies.

As noted earlier, some politicians and commentators have attributed this trend to the penetration of the mass media in India since the 1990s and its changing character. Newsworthiness of disruptions and unruly behaviour in the legislatures attracts media attention, keeps the party causing the disruptions in the limelight and gives it recognition. Contrariwise, participating in a debate requires investment in details of any proposed legislation or discussion, which, due to its staid nature, may not attract ready attention, except among parliamentary record keepers.

Moreover, legislators are selected by the parties not on the basis of their ability to debate and put across their viewpoint in a discursive manner, but for their ability to win elections. Hence, it is natural for them to exhibit their preferences through protests rather than through debate.

The other possible explanation for the rise in disruptions is the enactment of the anti-defection law in 1985, which allows parties to herd their members, weakens incentives of legislators to invest in developing their own viewpoints and express them freely as they cannot use their own stand on different issues to evolve or develop their own political careers. The effect of anti-defection law is not only manifest in disruptions or the nature of protest and dissent, but is also negative for intra-party democracy. It also accentuates the preexisting tendency of Indian politics to be personality- and dynasty-driven, and creates an incentive to control a party or to create one, as opposed to creating political capital out of one’s own vision or by creating a space within a party. The role of legislators has been reduced to merely instruments in the formation of govenment from the point of a party, because they are expected to follow the diktat of the party as far as legislative business is concened.

In the context of criticizing the system of “proportional representation” followed in Europe, Karl Popper listed the supremacy of parties as one of its major weaknesses. Post anti-defection law, while we have a system based on “local representation” and “first-past-the-post” elections, the party has become the basis on which elections are fought and govenment is formed, thereby weakening the role of legislators individually. While one can argue that the Indian electorate is much less interested in the individual merits of their representative, as opposed to some other countries, one would have to admit that the anti-defection law reinforces those preferences. Some politicians and commentators have tried to build the case for “presidential system” based on this argument. However, even in well-functioning presidential democracies, the importance of the legislative arm is recognized. Thus, the problem of the nature of representation and the need for debate in the legislature does not go away, even if the govenance system were to change.

The anti-defection law was enacted through the 52nd Constitutional Amendment by the Rajiv Gandhi govenment in 1985 to curb the “evil of political defection”. The law provided for disqualification of a member of Parliament or state legislature, if they voluntarily resigned from the party or disobeyed the party directive on a vote in the house.

While earlier the law allowed one-third of the members of a party to break away, another constitutional amendment (91st) brought by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) govenment in 2003 has now made it impossible to break a party in the legislatures.

The law got popular support in India for two reasons. First, the Indian electorate, to the extent that it votes for the party, rather than a representative, felt cheated whenever an elected representative defected to another party, particularly when such defection resulted in change of govenment. Second, there was also a sense of moral indignation, if the defector was seen to be in a powerful position due to the defection or was rumoured to have been paid off for the change in allegiance.

Such a feeling continues even now—and rightly so. Riding on this popular sentiment, the law went overboard and made any dissent from the party line unacceptable even if govenment formation was not at stake. Some of the more dispassionate forums, such as the Dinesh Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms (1990) and the Law Commission Report (1999) have suggested in the past that the parties should issue diktat to its members only when the govenment is in danger or the issue is related to the formation or continuation of the govenment.

However, this issue has never occupied the public mind.

Even though a five-member bench of the Supreme Court concluded in 1992 that “the anti-defection law seeks to recognize the practical need to place the proprieties of political and personal conduct... above certain theoretical assumptions,” and upheld the law as not impinging on the right of free speech of the legislators, it is clear from the nature of anti-defection law that it weakens the incentives for individual legislators to debate and take a stand and increases the incentives to control or create a political party to be able to issue diktats to its members. Maybe, the time has come to re-evaluate the Supreme Court’s position in the light of empirical evidence as opposed to theoretical assumptions.


Ajay Pandey is dean, programmes at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. A faculty member at IIMA since April 2001, he had been associated with MDI Gurgaon, ASCI Hyderabad, and IIM Lucknow earlier. His areas of research include capital markets, and public-private partnerships in infrastructure and energy sectors.

The article presents the author’s personal views and should not be construed to represent the institute’s position on the subject.


First published in 'View from IIMA' column in Mint.