Private Members’ Bill: Poor Incentives & Hard Working MPs

The Private Members’ Bills and Resolutions is a strange provision of the Indian Parliament.

In theory it allows, as the name suggests, any Member of Parliament to introduce a bill. As opposed to just the government introducing it. In practice not a single such bill has been passed in over 4 decades. In countries that have such a provision — typically ones with a Westminster system — the success rate of such bills is low. However, India has an unusually low rate still. Worse, almost none of the proposed bills get discussed; let alone becoming the law of the land.

In the Westminster system’s instance in India, a legislator does not have the possibility of grandstanding as an American lawmaker does. For example, no law in India will get named Tiwari-Jaitley as say a Dodd-Frank or McCain-Feingold get called; this even if the Lok Sabha somehow miraculously passes the bill. The last such bill made into law in India is blandly called The Supreme Court (Enlargement Of Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction) Act, 1970. There is no mention of Anand Narain Mulla, the independent MP from Lucknow, who introduced it. Not in the Act’s name or even in its citation. So, a politician really has no reward from an electability or popularity or even populist standpoint for doing this except in very rare circumstances — such as the ‘send ’em to the gallows’ bill that Sushma Swaraj proposed.

That leaves us with the question: why then do MPs still propose legislations as private members? They don’t get discussed in the media, they aren’t getting discussed in Lok Sabha and they certainly aren’t winning them elections. And because there is no tangible outcome, one can also make a reasonable case that there isn’t much of “introducing a legislation at lobbying’s behest.” To understand this better, let’s see where these originate.

Let’s first tabulate the data[1] on the basis of states’ whose MPs introduce these bills and benchmark them to the strength of that state in the Lok Sabha. If we do that, the scatter plot looks like this,

private members bill 1


The interesting states are Delhi, Kerala, Gujarat and Maharashtra. But a closer look reveals that in 3 of these states 2 or less MPs contribute to a majority of the bills. The prolific Hansraj Ahir from Chandrapur, Maharashtra for instance has introduced 31 bills. With none being discussed.

The question one is tempted to ask then becomes — are opposition MPs in a Parliamentary Democracy with anti-defection laws and an inability to vote contrary to their party whip’s diktat more likely to introduce Private Members’ bills? To understand that, let’s do the above tabulation party-wise instead. We then get a rather strange looking,

private members bill 2


So, yes the opposition does tend to use the provision more. But only by margins far less than what one’d have expected. What’s surprising is that certain high-profile members of the ruling party choose to take the private route — such as Sashi Tharoor seeking a High Court in Tiruvananthapuram and in every other State capital in India.

Another interesting dimension to look at the data will be: what is the Ministry under which the bill is being introduced. Lok Sabha’s website makes that data collection really troublesome but an initial estimate suggests that Home Affairs, Finance, Agriculture and Health have the maximum proposals. Some of them are in fact quite interesting. Dr Ajay Kumar seems to want Obamacare in India for instance; L Rajagopal wants MPs to lose pay for disrupting Parliament. A constant factor across party lines when one looks at the MPs having having a high number of such notices is that they all attend Parliament regularly, have a very large number of debate interventions and are virtually unknown to the English news watching audience.

The depressing lesson to take from this is that India’s system fails its enthusiastic MPs. Though much of the proposed laws, especially by dynastic MPs, are often authoritarian and don’t respect the federal structure enough. On the bright side however, one may also think, these MPs are largely working on things unlikely to yield result. Even if one excludes the large number of bills that may have been introduced only to make impossible an introduction of another; the Lok Sabha disallows two competing bills on the same subject. They still seem to have some notion of what ought to be — even if that is horrendously wrong and will never fructify. After all, isn’t that why their electorate sends them to the Lok Sabha? To deliberate on what ought to be?

[1] — Data was mostly downloaded from Lok Sabha’s website. Their search here is difficult to use, any help to further analyse this will be appreciated.

One thought on “Private Members’ Bill: Poor Incentives & Hard Working MPs

  1. bv

    I remember being surprised during the Lokpal agitation of 2011 that BJP and other opposition parties had not taken the opportunity to get mileage by tabling a Anna-Kejriwal version in the Parliament. I realized that they probably didn’t want to give too much legitimacy to the movement, but I thought getting brownie points was a nice opportunity for them.

    The government tabled a version on 04/08/2011 and then another version on 22/12/2011.

    So, before that some opportunistic private member (possibly a prominent member of a major opposition party) could have got a lot of coverage by just introducing the Kejriwal version. There was little chance of the bill passing, so even if the introducer actually didn’t want/like the Kejriwal version, they could safely get mileage without the downside risk of that version actually becoming the law.

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