As the two Houses of Parliament celebrate their Sixtieth Birthday on May 13 (they came into being on May 13, 1952), parliamentarians are in a celebratory mood and are preparing for a special sitting on that day, despite it being a Sunday. However, as all Indians know, the Sixtieth birthday (Shashtaabdi Poorthi) is also a day for some sober reflection on life gone by and on what lies ahead. So, away from the din in the two chambers, there is need for some quite stock-taking on the efficacy, relevance and standing of these two democratic bodies that are at the apex of our democratic structure.

How have these two Houses functioned over the last 60 years? How representative are they? Have they fulfilled their mandate of overseeing the work of the executive, keeping the government on its toes and   protecting the interests of the people? Also, some questions regarding the conduct of members of these two Houses. Are they still committed to public welfare? Do they take their parliamentary duties seriously?

Since this is a birthday celebration, it would be in the fitness of things to begin on a positive note. The biggest achievement of the two Houses of Parliament is that they are far more representative of the Indian people now than they were 60 years ago. We can now see the occupational democratization of the Lok Sabha. Almost half the members of the First Lok Sabha comprised of Lawyers (36 per cent), Journalists and Writers (10 per cent) and most of them came from dominant Hindu castes. The political empowerment of hitherto disadvantaged groups has brought about a change over the last two decades and the composition of the Lok Sabha is far more balanced now in terms of occupation, caste and class of members. The First Lok Sabha had 112 non-matriculates. This came down to 19 in the 14 Lok Sabha. Again, the first Lok Sabha had 277 graduates, post graduates and doctorates. In the 14 Lok Sabha as many as 428 members could boast of such qualifications. The political empowerment of the less privileged has also changed the composition of the state assemblies for the better and this in turn has changed the composition of the Rajya Sabha because the assemblies elected Rajya Sabha Members. The Upper House too has begun to mirror the social, political and economic diversity of Indian society.

A couple of other developments that are of a positive nature is the introduction of the committee system and the televising of parliamentary proceedings by Speaker Shivraj Patil in parliament in 1993. The constitution of department-related committees has improved parliament's oversight functions and has nudged MPs towards specialization. The televising of parliament has lifted the "purdah" on parliament and enabled people to see parliament in its true colours. It has also improved the sartorial sense of MPs if nothing else.

However, there are many items of the negative list: The Question Hour has lost its zing. The inquisitorial nature of this hour which one saw in parliament up to the late 1980s when ministers trembled at the thought of being subjected to harsh interrogation by the likes of Bhupesh Gupta, Indrajit Gupta, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Madhu Limaye, Piloo Mody and Madhu Dandavate are over. Today, MPs who are ill-prepared or lack the moral courage to pin down ministers appear uncertain and nervous and ministers like P.Chidambaram, who are wanting in democratic etiquette, talk down to them! Many other parliamentary instruments like Adjournment Motions, Call Attention Motions and Short Duration Questions have become rusted. The government is no longer afraid of the opposition, because the latter is not clothed in moral authority any more.

As regards individual MPs, the report card is disappointing. The distance between MPs and the electors is growing; the motto in the 1950s was simple living, high thinking. Now it is high living, no thinking. MPs want to flaunt their power and wealth and stay away from the Aam Aaadmi. They want red beacons (lal bathis) atop their cars; they are obsessed with their privileges and have a disdain for ethics; they neglect parliamentary duties: attendance is abysmal during passage of bills and there is high absenteeism in committees (50 percent). The list is endless and all this has taken its toll on the working parliament.

On the issue of maintaining standards in public life, India's parliament started on the right note when it decided to expel H.G.Mudgal, a member, for advancing the cause of the Bombay Bullion Association in the House for a price. After much negotiation and haggling, he accepted an advance of Rs 2700 and raised questions of behalf bullion merchants. But that was in 1951 in what is known as the Provisional Parliament that existed prior to the constitution of the two Houses in May, 1952. However, after the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha came into being, a certain laxity crept in when it came to moral and ethical issues. Parliament watched in silence when a member forged the signatures of 20 MPs on a memorandum submitted to the Union Commerce Minister on behalf of liquor importers from Yanam and Mahe, former French territories. The MP was prosecuted, sentenced and jailed by the court, but there was no admonition or punishment by parliament. Sensing public resentment, Speaker Shivraj Patil proposed a Code of Conduct for legislators in the early 1990s and the Privileges Committee of the Lok Sabha followed this up with a recommendation that parliament adopt the Code of Conduct and establish a committee to look into both privileges and ethics. These developments led to the establishment of ethics committees in the two houses, but the committees have by and large remained dormant.

Parliament therefore needed a major jolt to get it out of its stupor and to understand the growing public concern over the fall in ethical standards among MPs. This happened with two sting operations conducted by television professionals. The first of these exposed a "Cash for Questions" Scam in our parliament. MPs were willing to raise questions in parliament for a price (Rs 30,000 to Rs 1.10 lakh). The tapes aired on a TV channel came as a shock to the people. Swift action followed. A committee was set up to probe the scandal and report back to the Lok Sabha. On its report, 11 MPs were expelled from parliament. Around the same time, there was another expose vis-à-vis the MPLAD Scheme which sets apart a fund which MPs can dip into for development-related projects in their constituencies.  A TV channel showed four MPs or their personal staff demanding money to recommend projects under MPLADS. Here again a Lok Sabha Committee which probed the scam found the MPs guilty, reprimanded them and recommended their suspension from the House. The House acted on this report. But the most shocking case was that of a Lok Sabha Member who was into human trafficking. He was expelled and is being prosecuted.

So, what does the balance sheet say? As stated earlier, the most positive development over the last 60 years is the occupational democratization of the two Houses of Parliament. The establishment of Standing Committees has improved parliamentary scrutiny of the Union Budget and the Bills introduced in parliament. The televising of parliamentary proceedings and brought parliament closer to the people. The suspension and expulsion of MPs who indulged in corrupt practice has to some extent restored public faith in parliament's capacity to police itself. However, the following issues need to be addressed. The dysfunctionality of parliament ( loss of over 30 per cent of parliamentary time to disruptions) needs to be tackled urgently; a periodic audit by independent citizens of the working of the two Houses needs to be instituted because over the last 60 years, there has never been such an audit of parliament; and finally, the tendency of MPs to behave like neo-Maharajas needs to be curbed.

Finally, since it's the 60 th birthday of our parliament, let us end over diagnosis on a positive note by borrowing a phrase from Atal Behari Vajpayee. Our parliament is 60, but it is unlike our government servants. It is neither tired, nor retired!