With the elections to the 17th Lok Sabha under full swing, various media outlets and online portals have attempted to rank members of parliament based on their performance. As part of this ranking process, researchers have taken into account the following factors:
- The attendance rate of MPs,
- The questions asked in parliament,
- Private member’s bills introduced, and
- Debates in parliament.
Most of this data is easily accessible from the official website of the Lok Sabha. Unfortunately, these studies fail to take into account various factors which impacts these four criteria.
MPs use the Question Hour (from 11 am till noon) in the Lok Sabha to pose questions to various ministers in the Central government, as part of their duty to hold the executive accountable. Questions are of two types, starred and unstarred. A total of 230 unstarred questions are answered in writing every working day during a session of parliament, and 20 starred questions are selected for oral answers by ministers.
Unstarred and starred questions are selected by a random ballot process, and an MP can submit only five questions per sitting of the Lok Sabha. Therefore, the probability of an MP getting his or her starred question selected is far lower than in the case of an unstarred question, given that many of the 545 MPs submit questions. However, if a starred question does get selected, then that MP has the right to ask two supplementary questions in the Lok Sabha to get additional information from the ministers. A third supplementary question can be asked by any other MP, with the permission of the speaker.
Supplementary questions are extremely important, as the ministers are unable to view it prior to the sitting and prepare an answer in advance, unlike normal questions. It also requires meticulous research for a MP to come up with a supplementary question to counter the probable answer of the minister, prepared by the highest levels of the bureaucracy who have access to an incredible amount of data. Unfortunately, researchers who prepare the rank lists have failed to take into account the supplementary questions asked.
At the same time, it must be kept in mind that the overall approach of using questions as an indicator of performance is a fallacious one, because many MPs may be submitting a large number of well-researched questions, but are unable to raise it if they are unable to secure any of the top 20 (in the case of starred questions) or top 230 slots (in the case of unstarred questions) after the random ballot process.
The Lok Sabha also clubs similar questions as one question, before it is subjected to a ballot process. Therefore, with the obsession to have the maximum number of questions listed against their names, some MPs may submit similar questions, so that they have a higher chance of being selected through the ballot process. A quantitative comparison of parliamentary questions fails to taken into account the qualitative difference in questions.
The attendance rate of MPs is also woefully deceptive. When MPs enter the Lok Sabha at 11 am, they sign their names in their register. This makes them eligible for the daily allowance from the parliament, and in the first hour, MPs try to raise supplementary questions to starred questions, therefore a large number of them attend the first hour.
However, when an MP leaves the House, he or she need not enter the time of the exit. Therefore, even if an MP sits in the Lok Sabha for merely five minutes in the first hour, in comparison to an MP who is present for four hours, both them are merely shown as “present” in the attendance register.
The most important period for the Lok Sabha is the second half, after the lunch break. This period is spent in enacting laws. Unfortunately, the number of MPs who attend the second hour is relatively low and one is unable to analyse this data as the attendance register does not have hour-to-hour details.
Debates in the Lok Sabha are primarily divided into three types:
- Parliamentary interventions,
- Discussions on motions, resolutions, demands for grants, and
- Debates on Bills placed before the House.
Parliamentary interventions (such as Zero Hour interventions or interventions under Rule 377) as well as resolutions by an individual MP can only be raised if an MP secures a slot after a random ballot process. The number of interventions, like in the case of the questions, is hardly a fair method of comparing MPs, as some MPs can have better luck than others in winning the ballot.
In the case of debates on Bills, time is allotted to the political parties, not to individual MPs. The whips of the parties in turn select speakers to participate in the debate on their behalf. Therefore, it is possible that some MPs are unable to speak on a Bill, if their party decides to select other MPs to lead the debate.
Enacting laws is the most important function of an MP under the constitution. They are legislators or law-makers. Therefore, instead of clubbing debates on legislations and parliamentary interventions under the generic heading of “debates”, the debates on government bills must be analysed separately.
The ability of an MP to undertake a comprehensive and threadbare analysis of a bill is an important one. They can attempt to correct flawed provisions of bills by moving amendments. Any MP can move an amendment. It is not subjected to a process of ballot, nor is it dependent on the permission of the political party. Similarly, any MP can move a statutory resolution to disapprove an ordinance, without being subjected to any random selection process. Every MP also has the unconditional right to oppose the introduction of a Bill at the stage of introduction. A statement of opposition, explaining why a bill should not be introduced, can be made without the prior consent of the party whip.
Unfortunately, the ranking calculations ignore amendments to government bills, motions of opposition to government bills, as well as statutory resolutions. This could be because the data on amendments can only be analysed if a person studies all the parliamentary documents that are circulated during a session, and not from a simple search on the Lok Sabha website.
If an MP asks a one-line question during a discussion on a bill, or if an MP provides an exhaustive legislative critique in his or her speech, both of these statements will be treated equally as “debates” as per the Lok Sabha website. Thus, a quantitative analysis of debates as an indicator of performance, without looking at length and text of speeches, is virtually pulling wool over the eyes of the public.
Private member’s bills
Private member’s bills are an important indicator of an MP’s performance in parliament. While a quantitative analysis cannot capture the difference between a skilfully drafted bill and a poorly drafted one, the number of bills introduced in parliament is an indicator of the level of activity inside the House.
At the same time, it must be kept in mind that MPs cannot submit more than four bills per session for introduction, and they can only be introduced on every alternate Fridays. Therefore, in a brief session of 14 days, an MP can only introduce a private member’s bill on one Friday selected for this purpose. However, if the House is disrupted by protests and adjourned for the day, the MP will lose his or her opportunity to introduce the bill.
The data on private member’s bills fails to take into account the number of bills which have been submitted, but were not introduced. A bill cannot be introduced if it is defeated at the stage of introduction, like the two bills of Shashi Tharoor to decriminalise same-sex relations, which were defeated by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Some bills may be turned down by the Lok Sabha Secretariat if they feel that a bill falls outside the scope of parliament. They make this assessment based on the analysis of the bills by the Ministry of Law, which in itself is a flawed exercise because it gives unbridled powers to the executive to veto private member’s bills, instead of allowing them to being discussed and decided upon in parliament.
Thus, by failing to look at the number of private member’s bills submitted to parliament, in addition to the number of bills introduced, this criterion only gives a partial picture of an MP’s performance.
A true analysis of an MP’s performance must take into account the work the MP can perform as a matter of right, not dependent on random ballots and contingencies, such as the number of private member’s bills submitted, the motions to oppose government bills, amendments to government bills, or moving statutory resolutions on ordinances.
By failing to do so, and by failing to mention the limitations of the indicators used to rank MPs, such exercises fail to comprehensively grasp the work of MPs.
Arvind Kurian Abraham is a lawyer based in Delhi.