State of debate

The suspension of nine Congress MLAs from the Punjab assembly for the rest of the budget session has drawn the spotlight to a dirty secret of this country's much celebrated democracy: the abysmal conduct of its state legislatures. The incident speaks much about the scorn with which the rules of parliamentary conduct are tossed aside. Set against data tracking the pitifully few number of days each year that most of the state assemblies meet, the incident also emphasises the shallowness of deliberative democracy in the states. The horror is not just that opposition MLAs are increasingly limiting the sum of their contributions to theatrical spectacle. It is also, and perhaps more shockingly, that state governments are doing little to open up to debate, discussion and questioning on the floor of the House.

In 2012, for instance, the Haryana assembly sat for a mere 11 days — marginally worse than the Uttar Pradesh assembly's 24 days and Madhya Pradesh's 26. At a time when states are taking the initiative to enable investment in their territories and to stay ahead of the Centre in entitlement schemes, the perfunctory manner in which legislative business is done hints at the quality of law- and budget-making. The silencing of the legislatures comes against the backdrop of a consolidation of power in the states by the chief minister's office. Armed with the anti-defection law and the power to dispense patronage by way of ministerships and other offices, chief ministers are constrained less and less to demonstrate their accountability through responsive floor management. For their part, MLAs find better purchase in striking direct lines of communication with the chief minister, cabinet or opposition leaders. Compared to their counterparts in Parliament, members of legislative assemblies are driven by concerns of their constituencies. Till such time as state-level politics is configured as a clash of personalities between a chief minister and his or her challenger, there may be little hope of re-crafting politics in terms of competing arguments and programmes.

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