DISCLAIMER: The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s); and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for Policy Studies or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

By Priyank Jain

The Parliament of India has become dysfunctional. It is an oft repeated statement by the  Government and opposition parties alike. Government is charging that the conduct of the opposition parties inside the house is an affront to the Parliament. And, the opposition parties are charging that the Government’s unwillingness to discuss the issues, as they are suggesting and have pronounced in media, is an affront to the Parliament, as well as the people. Meanwhile, the Government, which enjoys the majority in both the houses of the Parliament is getting some important bills passed, without any scrutiny or discussion(1). To address the problem of disruptions, a few solutions(2) have been highlighted by Chaksu Roy of PRS Legislative Research, which were once discussed in a daylong conference of parliamentarians in 2001. Those solutions were enforcement of a code of conduct for members of the Parliament, and increasing the sitting days of the Parliament(3 ). What is evident is that those solutions have not been implemented and apparently further deterioration has happened in the overall functioning of the Parliament and conduct of the members of the Parliament.

It is important to understand the role which the Parliament plays in Indian democracy. First of all, the law-makers, members of the Parliament, sit there and make laws, which is their primary role. However, and more importantly, the Parliament can hold ‘government accountable and scrutinize its functioning’(4). There are different methods to do that which include ‘debates on Bills or issues on the floor of Parliament, by posing questions to ministers during Question Hour, and in parliamentary committees’ (5) . Through debates, vote on motion, discussions on important issues,  adjournment motions, and no-confidence motions, member of the Parliament reflect the public opinion(6) . In democracy, which is a system of accountabilities(7) , public service bureaucracies have their internal structures of accountability, which are then accountable to their respective ministries, the ministries are accountable to their respective ministers, the ministers then are accountable to the parliament, and parliamentarians are then ultimately accountable to ‘the people’. Therefore, a dysfunctional parliament epitomizes the broken chain of accountability.

There are suggestions to correct this as mentioned before, however, those are the suggestions which are mechanical in their approach. The issue of dysfunctional parliament needs further diagnosis. In doing so, I propose that the ethical theory of accountability may be of help.
Accountability is often viewed as a personal virtue or a mechanism through which an account for one’s conduct is owed to a forum. Accountability as a personal virtue or a mechanism is ‘voluntarist, purposive, and motivated social behavior’(8) . Melvin J. Dubnick has argued that before the forum, there is a ‘second-personal standpoint’, and has proposed the ethical theory of accountability. According to ethical-theory framework, accountability is an ‘involuntary, emergent problem-solving social behavior in ethical-challenging situations’(9)

The argument underlying the theory is that the capacity (“ability”) to engage in account-giving/receiving behavior is triggered by the human need to deal with problematic conditions involving social interactions where there exists a regard and respect for the reaction of others(10)

In building ethical theory of accountability, Dubnick has referred to Adam Smith – ‘a moral being is an accountable being’, Stephen Darwal, Harold Garfinkel, Chester Barnard, and others. There are three propositions in Dubnick’s account of accountability11: (i) ‘Accountability is based on mutual respect and regard for legitimacy and standing of the other.’ It is a ‘second-personal standpoint’ which abandons individualism (first-personal standpoint) and existence of higher authority (third-personal standpoint); (ii) ‘accountability is regarded as a vehicle through which individuals deal with the challenges of making sense of (and orienting) their interactions with others in specific settings’; and, (iii) Accountability relations emerge, develop, and can be (re)designed in accountability spaces.

The conceptualization of accountability as instrument of governance and administration is limited.The ethical theory of accountability which is still a work in progress, can, in words of Dubnick, ‘broaden and deepen our understanding of accountability’ and ‘can provide opportunities to integrate insights from sociology and anthropology into approaches to accountable governance.’(12) I believe, even with the given three propositions the issue of dysfunctional Indian Parliament can be viewed and discussed.

If language used by members of the Parliament of ruling party and opposition parties for each other in media is observed, it gives an indication of complete lack of mutual respect and regard for each other. Such situation may result into a rupture of all institutional mechanisms, which it already has in this monsoon session of the Parliament – be it all party meetings, business advisory committee, or standing committee, all are into a deadlock. As it appears that there is no communication happening through formal institutional arrangements, the role which accountability could have played in making sense of each other is not there. Where are the members of the Parliament of the ruling party and opposition parties are communicating formally? All communication which is visible is in media bytes and interviews and election rallies. As mentioned earlier, through members of the Parliament, it’s the public opinion which reaches the Parliament. But, the incommunicado suggests otherwise.

Lastly, is the Indian Parliament an accountability space where accountability relations can emerge between the executive and members of the Parliament and members of the ruling party and members of the opposition parties? The absence of members of the parliament including prominent opposition leaders and ministers and the Prime Minister in the Parliament, an unstoppable desire and need to play to the gallery (parliament sessions are live streamed), and perhaps, the brute majority of the ruling party and anti-defection law, explained here13 by Manish Tewari, Member of Parliament from Indian National Congress, are indicative of the fact that Indian Parliament is not an accountability space ‘yet’.

While a range of solutions are being proposed from increasing the sitting of the Parliament to amending the anti-defection law for making the Parliament function, ethical theory of accountability brings to the center stage the core of the problem that the Parliament is not yet the accountability space, which is its primary function, as mentioned earlier. There is no higher authority over members of the Parliament, therefore there is no question of third-personal standpoint. Either there can be a first-personal standpoint or a second-personal standpoint, whichis visibly not there. This point adds to the core of the problem that however much tweaking is done with the institutional arrangements, if respect and regard for the second person is not there, they are bound to rupture.

This analysis is based on the limited empirical material on functioning of the Parliament, available in media in last few weeks, which I had access to. However, even this gives a glimpse of the potential of ethical theory of accountability in illuminating the reasons for certain social behavior in context of accountability. In case of parliamentarians and the Parliament, it is even more appropriate because there is no higher authority or forum.



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