Want well-behaved MPs? Stop televising parliament
“Don’t use unparliamentary language”, a surprisingly common response to unwarranted rudeness used in parts of northern India, has long passed into oxymoronic folklore.
A Google video search on ‘Indian Parliament’ gives us the following top results: three funny speeches, one tearful speech, one fight, and one funny fight. Recent incidents in various Indian legislatures that captured the attention of traditional and social media have included such gems as: ruckus over members not taking their oaths in the regional language in a state assembly, legislators from two different states caught viewing explicit content on their cellphones, and displays of varying degrees of lawlessness by lawmakers from the Gangetic belt. During less exciting times, legislators have been in the news for succumbing to the strain of melatonin.
The desperate focus of news channels on trivial happenings in legislatures stems partly from the tedious and dreary nature of their proceedings. Parliamentary dynamics do not engender dramatic oration: they present few opportunities for an uninterrupted monologue, and there isn’t the luxury of having the audience lend one their ears. Speaking in parliament is instead a zero-sum game where the powers of the bully pulpit are leveraged not only by the speaker of a motion, but also by its responders, debaters as well as a set of accompanying actors- from thespian to ‘C’ grade.
More importantly, speaking in parliament represents a game of signalling, where assembly members constantly undermine their legislative roles (developing and modifying laws, checking the power of the executive), in favour of their roles as representatives of their voters and party. Many aspects of their behaviour may be explained as displays of loyalty to the party line and homages to senior leaders, or as exhibitions of self-sacrifice and commitment towards members of their constituencies. What we prescribe as good legislative behaviour- civility and decorum in the house- should ideally be heightened by the presence of live television cameras. In reality, these virtues are discarded and invalidated at the cost of signalling loyalty and commitment- aspects of electoral politics and statecraft whose importance is typically underestimated by outsiders. A few aggressive acts by legislators desperate to prove a point is all it takes to socialise such behaviour. Over time, competitive signalling among members across backgrounds and party lines will ensure that it becomes the norm.
The efficacy of both ‘games’ as well as legislators’ awareness about their potential for self-advancement, is multiplied several times over by the televisation and subsequent news coverage of parliamentary proceedings. Politicians have well identified the sensational and trivial aspects of legislative footage that news coverage is biased towards, and thus act in a manner that is bound to fetch them the tastiest slice of primetime. As Krishan Kant, former Vice-President and chairman of the Rajya Sabha had said, “Today, parliament and legislatures create a new breed of heroes- the well-rushing heroes, who hope to be elevated to instant national fame, straight from the well of the house.”
Such behaviour is not restricted to Indian legislatures. The same set-pieces of eyeball-grabbing tactics are employed by members of lawmaking bodies across the world- the most popular being the repeated and organised storming the well of the house, which is typically an area with the highest camera density. Another strategy is described by journalists as ‘doughnuting’: it entails surrounding the speaking legislator in order to create an impression of numerical strength around the argument being made. Interrupting and heckling front-benchers and senior members from opposing camps- resulting in momentary but precious camera time- is a behaviour often seen in parliamentary systems. In younger legislatures, turning stationery and uprooted furniture into dangerous projectiles is not uncommon.
What explains this universally exaggerated practice of signalling by politicians? Experimental psychology may have an answer: the concept of ‘reactivity’ defines the notion that individuals modify or improve an aspect of their behaviour in response to an awareness that they are being observed. In applied research, reactivity among test group subjects who modify their behaviour in aspects that are being tested by experimenters is known by a more well-known term- the Hawthorne Effect.
Several studies have demonstrated these phenomena, even in instances where the ‘observer’ isn’t human. Littering in a Newcastle University cafeteria was found to be lower on days when experimenters plastered wall-posters of staring human eyes, as opposed to days on which walls were adorned with pictures of flowers. In another experiment at MIT, participants were made to play a public goods game on a computer, with the test group being ‘observed’ by a robot with conspicuous eyes and a foreboding name- Kismet. The results showed that subjects that had Kismet on their screens displayed higher degrees of involuntary eye-detection movements to examine their levels of privacy, and were 29% more likely to contribute towards the public good, i.e. choose the less selfish option during the game.
These effects of reactivity, combined with mismatched notions of what constitutes ideal behaviour for a legislator, result in the Hawthorne Effect working in a perversely backwards way in many lawmaking assemblies in India and abroad.
The adverse costs of such behaviour among lawmakers have been conspicuous in the last two decades in India. There has been a dramatic growth in the mediums of parliament televisation, with the initial advent of cable television, followed by private news channels, and then 24×7 news coverage. As the stakes of being seen on TV have been raised by a larger supply of belligerent, sensationalised news, as well as the insatiable demand of the Indian viewer for daily political drama, lawmakers have gone to greater lengths to fulfil the requirements of the market.
Disruptions of parliamentary proceedings and by consequence its adjournments are the cornerstone of political signalling. It is not surprising that the amount of time lost to disruptions and adjournments in the lower house has seen an increase analogous to the growth of news media outlets- from 5% of total allotted time in the late nineties to 20% and 40% in the first and second UPA terms respectively (see graph). In the fifth session of the present Lok Sabha (July to September 2015), 72% of parliament time was wasted due to disruptions and adjournments.
Many readers will find these examples as further evidence to point out the redundancy and nuisance value of the Indian parliament. This argument does not support that claim. The parliament has in recent years put aside partisan differences to pass landmark legislation on education, transparency, nutrition and empowerment.
Moreover, dedicated legislators are making up for the signalling disruptors with dedicated work. According to official data, a large part of ‘wasted’ time in the fifteenth Lok Sabha was made up for by some members staying after working hours for a total of 276 hours (or 20% of total allotted time). Not withstanding the policy paralysis in 2011-13 following the anti-corruption movements that swept the country, the number of acts passed by six successive Lok Sabhas has remained in the same neighbourhood (see graph)– in stark contrast to the sharp rise in time lost to disruptions.
Substantive ground is being covered in parliament despite televisation-driven sensationalism, not because of it. Many journalists have raised doubts that the technical glitch that prevented televisation of parliament during the passage of the bill to create the new state of Telangana, may have been deliberately planned. While such clandestine actions by governments should be questioned, few can deny that the passage of the bill was largely peaceful and prevented further conflagration in Andhra Pradesh. The only downside was that the editorial staff in HQs had to be relayed the information on events by their field reporters, instead of a live feed.
On the other hand, the conspicuousness of unruly behaviour and disruptions makes them the face of parliamentary ethos, and erodes the faith of citizens in one of our most important institutions. It is hence time to trade in Big Brother for Dr. Ferber to ensure good legislative behaviour.
PS: An alternative- greater coverage of committees, discussions
The original purpose of televising parliament was to bring large-scale democratic education to the electorate. While stopping parliamentary broadcast may rob them of procedural insights, education on the larger democratic and legislative process may be ensured by focussing cameras or transcript recorders on the committees which oversee to-be laws in their important, formative stages, as well as general discussions. The non-profit C-SPAN network in the United States has rich, diverse programming on current events, as well as coverage of important Senate hearings- such as the appearance of Wall Street CEOs to answer for their role in the financial crisis. As of 2013, their programmes were regularly watched by 47 million Americans.