August 08, 2020
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‘MPs Must Be Able To Vote Across Party Lines’

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‘MPs Must Be Able To Vote Across Party Lines’
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
‘MPs Must Be Able To Vote Across Party Lines’

Congress MP and author Shashi Tharoor talks to Preetha Nair about the importance of private member’s bills, how it’s undermined, yet can still play a significant role.

Parliament has passed the transgender bill, a private member’s bill tabled by DMK MP Tiruchi Siva. However, it’s after 45 years that the Upper House had passed a private member’s bill. Though it’s believed that the concept of PMB is central to dem­ocracy, why do we have such a dismal record?

I think the demise of PMBs as a potent tool for policy contributions and filling gaps which the executive branch of government have missed is, in many ways, a reflection of a malaise within Parliament. Today, the role of Parliament has changed from the original intention of it being a deliberative body to a tool to rubber-stamp the government’s agenda. Particularly in the last six years, we have seen a pattern of blatant disregard for constructive criticism and collaborative policymaking, and, in its place, a system where the government will propose, the Opposition will oppose and the former will ultimately dispose. But this is also a flaw built into the parliamentary system.

According to PRS data, Only 14 PMBs out of thousands became legislation since 1952—most being passed during the Nehru government. Do you think the successive governments failed to recognise the importance of PMBs?

I think this is a fair criticism across the political aisle. All governments are at fault for underutilising PMBs and the fundamental aspect of deliberative policy-making that they represent.

You have tabled important private member’s bills, including the one against Section 377, which propelled a comprehensive legislation on it. However, you faced many hurdles. What were the reasons?

The underlying reason is parochial politics. When I spoke on my bill I was dismayed that it became the first bill not even allowed to be introduced, thanks to the retrograde attitude of ruling party MPs. I finally gave up, saying that only the judiciary could save the LGBT community. Thankfully, the SC did just that.

Do you think PMBs get low priority, with a limited time slot?

This certainly is a factor. But this cuts both ways. As MPs continue to see constructive, well-meaning legislation disregarded with regularity, they are likely to be discouraged to devolve time to such legislative tools. So, importance of PMBs continues to plummet. However, even when bills are not debated in Parliament, once they are introduced, one can bring them to the public’s attention. Like serious media coverage on my bills to grant rights to domestic workers, promote the direct election of mayors and read down the sedition act. And the defeat of my 377 bill got more national attention than its routine passage might have. So don’t underestimate the agenda-setting role of PMBs.

Do you think the government needs to bring in reforms to recognise the importance of PMBs? What needs to be done to strengthen the process of legislative approval for new laws?

The government can allocate more time to PMBs rather than the current system of alternate Fridays. Second, to encourage more bipartisan support, we should have a system where MPs can vote across party lines on PMBs rather than on strictly party-whip basis. Finally, PMB’s that secure vote above a certain threshold should be given enough time to be discussed; if it passes a second vote, it must then be sent to a parliamentary standing committee. Based on its recommendations the legislation must be considered by the government, ideally be incorporated, or at least brought to the floor for debate.

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