Renowned civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said, “Deliberation and debate is the way you stir the soul of our democracy.” As the Winter Session of Parliament ends prematurely, it is time to deliberate on whether the ethos of Indian Parliament is intact or eroding. The Narendra Modi government, by using the august house as a political instrument and not an arm of the executive, has yet again raised questions and fuelled the discussions regarding the credibility of the legislature.
The treasury benches have failed to acknowledge that dissent and disruption are facets of democracy, even though it is their responsibility to ensure the smooth functioning of Parliament. By conveniently shifting the onus on the Opposition, the benches cannot wash off their responsibilities.
Ignorance towards people’s issues/mockery of mandate
The hallowed halls of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, which once witnessed serious debates, have been reduced to being transit points for the legislation. The stubborn attitude and the tendency of the Modi government to turn a blind eye towards the concerns raised by the Opposition have not only eroded the accountability of the administration, but also decayed the quality of debates, the resultant being questions raised over the quality of legislation. The Modi government should realise that the Opposition also constitutes a mandate of the people and silencing the Opposition indicates disrespect towards the voices of the people.
The repeal of the three farm laws came as no surprise, they were repealed more hurriedly than they were passed. Parliament had the right to be informed and debate on the objects and reasons of the repealing legislation. No debate indicates the Modi government’s pusillanimity in discussing issues related to farmers in the Houses of Parliament. Even the serious issues relating to the death of protesting farmers, labelled as ‘planned conspiracy’ by the SIT formed in the Lakhimpur case, involving a sitting minister’s son (prime accused in the case), were completely ignored despite regular adjournment motions by the Opposition members.
Other important issues affecting people’s lives like rising prices of essential commodities, unemployment, civilian killings in Nagaland, preparedness of the government for Omicron variant and the third wave of Covid were not allowed to be discussed in the House. Ironically and not so surprisingly, questions relating to national security such as continued Chinese encroachment on Indian territory were ducked under the garb of ‘national security’. To put it in a perspective, Parliament was denied its constitutional mandate of exercising its powers as an institution of accountability over the executive. If this is the pattern and modus operandi, the day is not far when the Opposition will also have to file RTIs to know more about the matters of the government.
Disruption by design
Much before the beginning of the Winter Session of Lok Sabha, the stage was set for volatility and non-functioning of Parliament. An all-party meeting is normally convened by the Speaker of Lok Sabha before the commencement of the session. Surprisingly, no such meeting was conducted, and Prime Minister Modi chose not to attend an all-party meet conducted by the government. Then the session began with an arbitrary suspension of 12 members of the Opposition from Rajya Sabha. One more member was later suspended. Various leaders from the opposition voiced their concerns in the House and were silenced, and even the suspended members staged a protest against their arbitrary, unjust, and undemocratic suspension in front of the Gandhi statue in Parliament House Complex throughout the session.
But neither the government nor the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, who is considered to be the bridge between the government and the Opposition, put any genuine effort to reach out and resolve the issue. Despite this, the Opposition cooperated in the national interest for the transaction of business in the House, which resulted in 102 percent productivity in Lok Sabha during the first seven sittings. Lok Sabha lost 18 percent of the time and Rajya Sabha lost 52 percent of its time by the end of the Winter Session to the strategic disruptive attitude of the Modi government and its non-accommodative spirit.
Considering the strategy adopted by the government, Lok Sabha witnessed 238 adjournment motions moved by the Opposition leaders on several issues of national and public importance, but not a single adjournment was considered and admitted. In Rajya Sabha too, the Opposition faced a similar obstruction. The treasury benches in both the Houses were mostly seen empty except on days when whips were issued. This serves as a testament of the government’s attitude towards the issues of national and public interest. On 15 December, the Opposition was forced to bring an adjournment in the Rajya Sabha due to an undemocratic practice adopted by the Cabinet ministers of not attending the House.
The Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which is in stark contrast with the Supreme Court judgment (Justice Puttaswamy case) on privacy, and mandate of Aadhaar Act were bulldozed as Supplementary Business and passed without discussion. The Bill linking Aadhaar and voter ID was introduced and passed in the Lok Sabha within 26 minutes and was introduced and passed in the Rajya Sabha on the same day within an hour’s time. In the 17th Lok Sabha, only 13 percent of the bills were referred to the committees for detailed scrutiny, the lowest in the last 15 years. Amidst the orchestral chaos in Parliament, PM Modi did not attend the session (except on the first and the last day) or make any efforts to lead a smooth session. The collective design and efforts of the government and its ministers ensured that the Opposition did not find space in Parliament to question the executive.
The sheer disregard of the parliamentary practices, rules and procedure by the Modi government once again puts a big question on the development of a new Parliament building. What good is a structure built to uphold and further the democratic principle and values, when the practices and ways adopted by the government are demolishing its very foundation brick by brick? To the disappointment of many, in less than a decade, we witnessed a serious blow on democratic principles and values. In 2021, Parliament convened for only 59 days, which is one of the lowest. In his address, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, during the Constitution Day programme in Central Hall this year, suggested that Parliament should sit at least 100 days a year and state assemblies should for at least 90 days a year. If we can implement this with a fixed calendar, that would somehow insulate Parliament from externalities like assembly elections.
For Parliament’s smooth functioning, the Speaker should not only felicitate the voices of dissent but also hold the government accountable for curbing the same. The Chairperson of both the Houses should introspect on the approaches adopted by them to ensure maximum participation, smooth functioning, and strengthening of voices of dissent. Apart from that, minimum attendance should be mandated in Parliament at least when discussing a bill of urgency and/or importance, the rights of members to debate and discuss should be respected.
More bills should be referred to Standing Committees for detailed scrutiny. Committees provide forums for consensus-building across party lines. Frequent all-party meetings and discussions therein on issues of national importance would further informed discussions and debates in the House. Pre-legislative consultations are an adopted practice in many countries and should be mandated and not left at the discretion of the government. A policy was devised in 2014 to place a version of draft laws to be introduced in the public domain for at least 30 days for comments. To date, only 74 drafts were made public for comments out of 300 that were introduced in the House. It is said that in a parliamentary democracy, the Opposition should have its say and the government will have its way. The Modi government’s Hobbesian tendency to undermine Opposition legitimacy will only weaken India’s indradhanush democratic fabric and reduce Parliament into BJP headquarters where only ‘yes man’ rule applies.
The author is a Supreme Court lawyer and national spokesperson, Indian National Congress. He tweets @JaiveerShergill. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)