The modern parliament was born in England in the 17th century as "an instrument of the rising bourgeoisie for controlling the monarchy." It later reached America, continental Europe and subsequently, the rest of the world. The first significant supranational parliament was the European Parliament that, in the words of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, "represents the peoples of the States brought together in the European Community." The last five decades have revealed a striking growth in regional parliaments. Till June 2004, membership to the Inter Parliamentary Union witnessed five associate members such as the Andean Parliament, the Central American Parliament, the European Parliament, the Latin American Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In addition, the Joint Parliamentary Commission of Mercosur is an embryonic institution that deserves closer scrutiny.
Recently, by instigating the idea of a South Asian parliament, the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) urged South Asian countries to follow the "European model of creating inter-state economic dependencies and then moving ahead with plans of political cooperation." The demand was made at the inaugural session of the SAFMA Parliamentary Forum with its theme 'Evolving South Asian Fraternity'. This raises some questions: first, why should region-makers mind establishing a regional parliament when democratic set-up itself is going on a toss in the South Asian scenario? Second, is the proposal genuine or is there any hidden agenda? Third, how has it developed in Europe and Latin America, and what are the problems in South Asia?
Historically speaking, the idea was first mooted in the early 1990s and elaborated upon in 1995 by academics and analysts who projected a SAARC parliament as a strategic mechanism for 'crisis management and resolution', and as a law-making body to monitor the "economic and security interests of the region". It was India's then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao who had mentioned the idea of a South Asian Parliament in his inaugural address at the 10th Anniversary of SAARC in New Delhi on 8 December 1995. The then Bangladesh Foreign Minister endorsed the concept of a 'non-legislative South Asian parliament'. Support for the idea of a South Asian parliament received a boost when India's Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, endorsed it and reiterated the proposal for a South Asian Parliament on various occasions, which led the Congress Party to endorse this idea in its agenda for the 2004 general elections.
Parliamentary representation at the regional level is an integral part of representative democracy. We know now that, of all regional parliamentary initiatives, the European Parliament is the only one that has acquired real powers and become pivotal to the complex decision-making structure of the European Union. While the EU is already a common market and is consolidating an economic union, its institutional structure meets the requirements of its member countries.
In the case of South Asia, the authority and survival of the government is independent of the parliamentary will in most of the countries, despite the 'fragility of parliamentary democracy'. According to Prof. S D Muni, the South Asian region "does not stand for strong parliamentary institutions." Even in stable democracies like India and Sri Lanka, socio-political dynamics have evolved in a manner that "healthy political culture has not been reflected in the functioning of parliaments and its associated institutions." Added to it are the political defections, indiscipline, corruption and power struggles that "have not allowed healthy norms and traditions of parliamentary functioning to take roots". For months, "oppositions have boycotted parliaments to make trivial political points and in the process have also not allowed parliaments to transact legislative business". Hence, it would be unreasonable to hope that the Heads of South Asian States would replicate, at the regional level, a feature that escapes them at the domestic level.
Regional parliaments may be able to harmonize aspirations such as constructing a regional identity amongst political elites, strengthening the emblematic regional organization with the help of public opinion and third countries, and facilitating intra-regional communication. However, these functions are neither exclusive nor characteristic of a parliamentary institution as such. If the idea of South Asian parliament is to be promoted, then the distinction between its constitutional and peripheral functions should not be ignored. As history informs, endorsing unrealistic proposals, whether based on ingenuous emulation or insufficient understanding, will doom the enterprise to failure or, at best, irrelevance.