If Parliament Doesn't Have the Power to Convene Itself, How Effective Can It Really Be?

Political compulsions and legislative demands have time and again resulted in deviations from the conventional three-session calendar.

Amidst growing anticipation for the commencement of the winter session of parliament, parliamentary affairs minister Ananth Kumar on Tuesday said the session will begin in December. The government is yet to finalise the dates. Typically, winter session begins around the middle of November, extending three to four weeks.

The Indian parliament does not have a fixed calendar of sittings. Furthermore, it does not have the power to convene itself. The constitution only mandates that ‘six months shall not intervene’ between the last sitting of one session and the first sitting of the next. The power to summon parliament rests with the executive.

At the time of framing the constitution, the provision of summoning parliament was deliberated over extensively. Some members of the constituent assembly felt that the executive may be “reluctant to face the legislature” and “avoid calling session”. Others argued that a provision be added to the constitution that in case of any contingency, the speaker or chairman can convene the houses. Finally, the consensus was that the executive, headed by the prime minister, which steers the business to be taken up by parliament will have the power to advise the president to summon the legislature.

In practice, the Cabinet Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, comprising senior ministers, decides on the dates for parliament’s sitting and it is then conveyed to the president.

Does such a manner of convening allow the parliament to perform its role effectively?

By function, parliament is entrusted to be the ‘watchdog’ of our democracy and hold the executive accountable. Without the power to convene itself, it is the executive that decides when the parliament should meet to exercise oversight of its functioning.

Over the years, parliamentary convention has evolved towards having three sessions – the budget, monsoon and winter sessions. Political compulsions and legislative demands have time and again resulted in deviating from this conventional three-session calendar. For instance, the monsoon session of 2008 was extended till November-December – there were only two sessions during the year. This was done to prevent a second no-confidence motion being moved against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first government. Later in 2011, the budget session was cut short to allow political parties to campaign for upcoming state elections.

In other democracies, like the UK, US and Germany, parliamentary calendars are by and large fixed. They sit throughout the year with breaks in between. It allows them to plan their agenda well in advance and electoral cycles, or other political compulsions, do not disrupt the legislature’s calendar.

The issue of who has the power to convene parliament is significant. It is closely related to the recent trend of declining number of sitting days. Parliament in the last ten years has met for an average 70 sittings a year. This is a substantial fall compared to earlier Lok Sabhas that met for an average of 120 days in a year.

In comparison, UK’s House of Commons met for an average of 150 days a year over the last 15 years. The United States House of Representatives met for an average of 140 days a year over the same period.

Previously, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution had recommended that a minimum number of working days for the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha should be fixed at 120 and 100 respectively. The former Vice President Hamid Ansari, while inaugurating the Whips Conference in 2008, had also suggested an increase in the number of sittings to 130 days per year.

In the current political climate, the delay of summoning parliament has come under much criticism. Key legislation like the code on wages, amendment to no detention policy under the RTE Act, amendment to motor vehicles Act, among others are currently being examined in committees and are likely to be taken up when parliament meets.

As the highest representative body, parliament is the forum for debate and deliberation. While the opposition accuses the government of shying away from such discussion, it is also an opportunity for our lawmakers to really think about institutional reforms needed for strengthening the overall role of parliament. Should parliament have an annual fixed calendar, should there be an alternative manner to convene parliament, should parliament or a minimum number of members be empowered to convene itself – are questions that need to be discussed as well such that parliament does not only meet at the behest of the government.

Trina Roy is a Program Officer at PRS Legislative Research, handling media and civil society engagement.