‘A fixed House calendar will check the executive’s arbitrariness’Former Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs and chairperson of Nepal Law Commission Madhav Poudel on the reason why the country’s Parliament has become ineffective over the years.
Three months since its first meeting, the House of Representatives is yet to constitute its thematic committees. Neither has the government given it adequate business. While the country awaits several laws for the full-fledged implementation of federalism and to resolve crucial problems like citizenship distribution, not a single bill has been registered in the Parliament. Nor has it endorsed pending ones. A similar trend was visible in the preceding parliaments as well. In an interview with the Post’s Binod Ghimire, former Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs and chairperson of Nepal Law Commission Madhav Poudel talks about the reason why the country’s Parliament has become ineffective over the years. Excerpts:
The House of Representatives took three months to prepare its regulations. It is yet to constitute various House committees. The trust deficit between the ruling parties and the Speaker is already surfacing. How do you think the House will function amid these problems?
Our parliamentary history dates back to the first elected Parliament in 1958. However, that experiment didn’t last long. So, in a true sense, the country embarked on the journey of parliamentary democracy only after the promulgation of 1991 constitution and the subsequent election. By now, Nepal should have attained a level of maturity in parliamentary practice. Sadly, that is not the case. Despite having practised parliamentary democracy for over three decades now, the House is focused only in making and unmaking governments, which is just one of its many jobs. The constitution authorises the Parliament to have an intervening role and take decisions independently. But it has failed to carry out its constitutional roles. It has proven feeble before the executive.
The House of Representatives is the centre point of our governance system. It must intervene in every function of the state. It has the authority to scrutinise not just the government and its agencies but also the constitutional commissions. There is a saying that only liberal democrats want the Parliament to function effectively but autocrats and pseudo democrats try to prove its ineffectiveness. The way our Parliament has been reduced into a shadow of the executive makes us suspect it is headed in the wrong direction.
The first three months of the present-day lower house are not encouraging. However, I believe cross-party leaders, lawmakers and the Speaker will learn from the past and work to make the Parliament more effective. I am optimistic because many youths are represented in the House, while new parties—the Rastriya Swatantra Party, the Janamat Party and the Nagarik Unmukti Party—have entered it for the first time. I expect them to act more responsibly.
Are you suggesting, all parties, irrespective of whether they are so-called democrats or communists, have the same tendency?
Yes. The government calls or prorogues the House session whenever it wants. There are instances where the House sessions have been prorogued without prior information to the Parliament. The lower house has been repeatedly dissolved. How can the executive act so arbitrarily against the legislative in a parliamentary democracy? India now isn’t the best example of parliamentary democracy. Still, it is very mature. The House sessions are called three times a year—budget session, monsoon session and winter session. They never breach the practice. Here, it is all up to the government: when the House sessions are called and when they are prorogued.
Why haven’t our parliamentary practices evolved in over three decades?
Our political leadership doesn’t want the Parliament to be effective. It wants to bypass the House. Most vital decisions that should be up to the House are decided through extra-parliamentary debates. The top leadership takes decisions through private meetings and the Parliament endorses them as a rubber-stamp. The government of India under Narendra Modi issued 88 ordinances in eight years between 2014 to 2011, or an average of eight a year. Here, 49 ordinances were issued from 2018 to 2022.
Even the national budget has been issued through the ordinance, which is an extremely unfortunate part of our democracy. Parliamentary democracy can never be strengthened when the executive tries to run the country through ordinance. Our leadership has reduced the role of the Parliament to making and unmaking of governments.
The Constitution of Nepal has great provisions on the Parliament and the regulations that guide its functioning. But there are problems when it comes to implementation.
Why do you think the parties are against a fixed House calendar?
In Nepal no state organ has used its discretionary power objectively. We have seen how the government has misused the discretionary power to summon and prorogue House sessions. Preparing a calendar will stop the executive’s arbitrariness. The calendar is necessary to maintain discipline in the House. In my view, the budget session must commence a month prior to the presentation of the budget on Jestha 15 (May 29) of the Nepali calendar so that there is ample time to discuss the government’s policies and programme. Similarly, the winter session should commence in November-December and continue for three months. There should be a similar calendar for the House committees.
What should the House be doing ideally?
Traditionally the House was constituted to ensure people’s representation, endorse the bills and budget, and for government formation. However, the responsibility of the Parliament has broadened in recent times. Supervision of the government and its agencies and holding debates on issues of national interest are now among its vital tasks.
The government has to disclose important information first through the Parliament. I remember then Prime Ministers Girija Prasad Koirala and Manmohan Adhikari making disclosures about their foreign trips through the Parliament. Now, such information is made public through press meet or public address but leaders don’t consider it important to inform the Parliament. Ratification of the treaties is another important task of the Parliament. As many as 15 such treaties or agreements were presented during the previous House and just eight of them were endorsed.
An active opposition is also an important feature of an effective parliament. However, there is a culture that the opposition must criticise the government’s every action and obstruct the House if its interests are not met. Obstruction doesn’t strengthen parliamentary functions. Impeachment is another of the parliament’s authorities. However, the power hasn’t been used correctly. Conducting parliamentary hearings for the justices and nominees for the constitutional bodies is another task of the House.
Monitoring the directive principles of the government, presentation of resolution motion and holding question-answer sessions for the prime minister and ministers are other tasks before the House and the lawmakers. In my view, other than the first Parliament elected after restoration of democracy and the reinstated House after 2006’s people movement, no other lower houses have been effective.
Does this lack of effectiveness also apply to House committees?
The House committees also have a big role in keeping government agencies in check. Other than holding detailed clause wise-discussions of the bills, the House committees can monitor the activities of the respective ministries and government agencies. They can also evaluate whether the government has prepared delegated legislation as directed by the House. However, except for a few House committees, most don’t seem ready to carry out their responsibility. They are happy in calling the ministers and government officials and issuing directives. Sometimes, such directives are unrealistic and impossible to implement. The House committees often don’t take the burden of evaluating whether their directives have been followed.
Is only top leadership responsible for the present situation or are the Speakers and the lawmakers failing in their duty?
Everyone. There are instances where the House proceedings have been obstructed for the lack of quorum as lawmakers didn’t show up. Members of the House have a big role in scrutinising the executive. They can register a resolution motion or a motion to draw the government’s attention. They can even register bills. It is their constitutional authority to seek clarification from the government on issues of public interest. But they are passive on these fronts. The Speaker also has a coordinating role to make the House effective. The top leadership alone is not responsible for making the Parliament ineffective.