The speed with which the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has passed bills – from laws on triple talaq and the reorganisation of Jammu & Kashmir to amendments in UAPA and RTI Act – makes it look like it is only the government that brings legislations into India’s rulebook. But that’s not true. There is also a graveyard of ideas in Parliament called the Friday syndrome. This is when Private Member Bills come but they don’t get enough weight and time.
All Members of Parliament are lawmakers, and the ones who are not ministers (referred to as private members) can also introduce bills in Parliament.
MPs can decide issues that require legislative intervention and introduce what is called a Private Member Bill (PMB) to address them. These bills are introduced on a Friday (when Parliament is in session) and discussed during the last two-and-a-half hours of the day. This makes Fridays one of the most important and interesting days in India’s parliamentary calendar.
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Non-minister MP’s power
Just like any government bill, a Private Member Bill also becomes law if it is passed by both houses of Parliament. During the first Lok Sabha term (1952-57), seven bills brought by private members became laws. One of them was the Proceedings of Legislatures (Protection of Publication) Bill, 1956, introduced by then-Rae Bareli MP Feroze Gandhi. The bill, which became law in 1957, sought immunity from civil and criminal lawsuits for anyone publishing a true account of parliamentary proceedings. Feroze Gandhi was managing director of daily newspapers National Herald and Navjivan at the time.
The idea behind the creation of PMBs was to use the experience of members who were not ministers in identifying gaps in the legal system and suggest solutions for them. The idea worked well during the initial years. Parliament supported the members and the committees examined the bills and gave extensive feedback. The government too was more accepting of the MPs in their role as individual lawmakers.
Even when a bill got rejected, its central idea was incorporated later in the government’s own bill. For example, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as an MP in Rajya Sabha (1962-67), had proposed a PMB seeking a ban on donations to political parties by private companies. His bill was rejected but in 1969, the government enacted a law putting restrictions on monetary contributions by private companies to political parties. During the first 18 years of our country’s Parliament, 14 PMBs became laws – the last one being in 1970.
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Right causes find support
Thereafter, Indian politics became more fractured and governments became resistant to accepting ideas and solutions proposed by individual MPs. But the hardening stance of successive governments did not discourage the MPs from working on private bills. They kept drafting and introducing PMBs to draw the attention of the government to critical issues or to suggest new ideas. At 35, Rajesh Pilot, in his first term in the 7th Lok Sabha (1980-84), introduced a bill, which proposed that MPs declare their assets and liabilities. The bill received widespread support from other MPs, some of whom (Madhu Dandavate and H.M. Bahuguna) shared their experience of making such declarations. The government agreed with the spirit of the bill, but requested Rajesh Pilot to withdraw it. Protests erupted in the Lok Sabha when he tried to do so. MPs demanded that votes be counted before the bill could be withdrawn. The bill was finally withdrawn after 44 MPs voted in favour of the withdrawal and 15 opposed the move. It is a different matter that Parliament finally had to make a law in 2002 following a judgment by the Supreme Court.
A trend has evolved over the last four decades. After holding a discussion on a private bill, the government requests the MP piloting the bill to withdraw it. So far, the governments have always been successful in their attempts. But sometimes, MPs press on in an attempt to see the bill through. Since 1970, only one MP has been successful in getting his PMB passed in Parliament. In 2015, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)’s Rajya Sabha MP Tiruchi Siva was able to build consensus around his Rights of Transgender Persons Bill to get it passed by a unanimous voice vote.
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Steady decline of PMBs
Over the years, the parliamentary mechanism of PMBs has seen a slow and steady decline. In the last Lok Sabha, approximately 900 PMBs were introduced and not even 2 per cent of these bills were discussed in the House. There are three broad factors that have led to this decline. First, the government’s adversarial stance towards MPs has hardened over time. For example, over the last decade, many MPs have suggested ideas for strengthening the working of Parliament – the latest being Rajya Sabha MP Naresh Gujaral. His PMB proposed measures like a minimum number of sitting days for Parliament, special sessions in addition to the three sessions, and making up for lost time due to disruptions. While there was widespread support for the bill, it was not acceptable to the Modi government and the bill was rejected in the first week of this session.
But the government is not the only one to be blamed for this decline. MPs themselves are not very serious about PMBs. It reflects not only in the poor quality of drafting of their bills but also in their absence on Fridays when these bills come up for discussion. Attendance in the second half of Friday is sparse as many MPs use the weekend break to visit their constituencies. For example, the second Friday of this session was on the 28th of June. On this day, PMBs were not listed but the House was discussing a private member resolution about water and fodder scarcity in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. During the discussion on this important issue, there were less than 55 MPs (the minimum number required for conducting the business) in the Lok Sabha. The absence of MPs led to the abrupt end to the discussion.
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Disinterested MPs, not enough time
The disinterest of MPs is a combination of the attitude of the government and the lack of attention to PMBs by Parliament. The rules of Parliament allocate two-and-a-half hours every alternate Friday in a session to discuss PMBs. This duration has not changed since the 1950s. With an average Parliament session lasting four to five weeks, there are only five hours available to discuss PMBs in one session. This leads to PMBs piling up and not being discussed on the floor of the House.
Our Parliament is supposed to be a market place for ideas. In a mature parliamentary system, all ideas should get debated and decided upon. While the legislative ideas piloted by the government get discussed, the ideas of MPs get accumulated and remain ignored. Every Friday in our Parliament’s calendar becomes a graveyard for ideas and insights of our public representatives. We are at the beginning of the 17th Lok Sabha. This is an opportune time to find a solution to strengthen the ideas for laws that our parliamentarians will introduce over the next five years.
The author is the Head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research. Views are personal.