'Sorry State' of Parliamentary Debate: NDA Govt Undermines Informed Lawmaking
NDA govt's side-stepping of parliamentary scrutiny sabotages democracy by the brute force of authoritarianism.
There was a time when Parliament would be in the news for its primary function - debates on lawmaking. Every Bill was laid bare before the conscience of the members of the House, with each clause scrutinised, every purpose, questioned.
A deliberative Parliament mirrored the essence of our constitutional democracy where coexistence of diverse ideas and synthesis of opinions reign supreme. But not any more.
"A sorry state of affairs" - said Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, referring to the state and nature of parliamentary debates in contemporary times. The highest judicial officer of the country expressed "unhappiness" over debates in Parliament no longer being "wise and constructive".
"Now, it is a sorry state of affairs. We see legislations with a lot of ambiguities... there are a lot of gaps in laws. There is no clarity regarding the laws. We don't know for what purpose a law has been made... This creates a lot of litigation and inconvenience and loss to the government and public."CJI NV Ramana
CJI's remarks comes in the backdrop of a questionable pattern adopted by the government in power; a pattern of sidestepping parliamentary scrutiny in passing key legislations. Many controversial legislations have been passed without providing adequate opportunity for meaningful debates, and without referring such Bills to the scrutiny of either the Select or the Standing Committee.
As per the data collated by India Spend, Under the NDA-1 government, only 25% of all bills were referred to committees, compared to 71% under the UPA-2 government and 60% under UPA-1 in the 14th Lok Sabha. Only about 10% of bills introduced in Parliament during the 17th Lok Sabha have been referred to committees.
From Triple Talaq to the Farm Bills - the present government has made it a norm to pass politically motivated and controversial Bills without adequate parliamentary scrutiny. This practise undermines the very core of parliamentary democracy - deliberation and rationality - with brute majoritarian force.
Why 'Vibrant' Parliamentary Debates Matter
In a parliamentary democracy, lawmaking is a deliberative and consultative process. In India, Bills are not only supposed to be debated on the floor of the House, but also referred to department specific standing committees for detailed scrutiny and a multi-stakeholder consultation process.
When a Bill is subjected to a deliberation process, its intention, purpose, and potential impact is debated from all perspectives. Parliamentary debates force the government to reveal the true intention behind introducing the Bill and forces it to defend each and every clause before the House. The opposition or the relevant stakeholders can also use this opportunity to poke holes in government's narrative, raise their specific concerns, and push for necessary amendments.
Parliamentary debates have a role to play beyond the lawmaking process. As CJI Ramana pointed out in his address, such debates are of great assistance to the judiciary in gauging the "legislative intent" behind laws. Such legislative intent is a key resource for the judiciary for the process of interpreting laws.
"Different legislations used to be deliberated (in Parliament). So the burden of the courts while interpreting or implementing the laws used to be less, as we had a clear picture as to what was the purpose behind a particular law and what the legislature thought while making the law."CJI NV Ramana
Sabotaging Democracy By Side-Stepping Scrutiny
The BJP-led government, however, have made disregarding the age-old convention of subjecting Bills to parliamentary scrutiny a norm. Since the government came to power in 2014, it has used its brute majority in Lok Sabha to side-step parliamentary scrutiny, especially to pass "controversial Bills".
The NDA government has passed many controversial Bills without the critical scrutiny of any of the Parliamentary committees - Jammu & Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, Unlawful Activities Prevention Bill, Triple Talaq Bill, Citizenship Amendment Bill, and Farms Bill, to name a few.
The passing of these Bills with little Parliamentary scrutiny exposes the government's authoritarian approach. It also suggests a certain insecurity, that ensures these politically-motivated and ideologically-laden Bills are not subjected to parliamentary scrutiny.
In the case of the Farm Bills, the government committed the classic hijacking of discourse by completely alienating the farmers from the framing of laws that would alter their lives and livelihood. The Agriculture Minister defended passing the Farm Bills without parliamentary scrutiny by calling them "small Bills". What followed, underlined just how wrong the minister was - thousands of farmers protesting for months on Delhi's borders.
This repeated side-stepping of parliamentary scrutiny has effectively sabotaged democracy. The passing of such crucial laws in such a questionable manner is usually a prologue to what lies ahead - using the ambiguous and draconian provisions of these laws to silence dissent.
In late 2019, India saw the marginalised sections of society protesting the CAA and the NRC legislations. Thousands of students, academics, activists, the women of Shaheen Bagh, took to the streets to relentlessly protest these "draconian laws" that the government was trying to impose with brute majoritarian force. Later, many of these protestors were arrested, put behind bars, and denied bail under another law which was hushed through Parliament without debate - the UAPA.
Parliamentary Democracy in the ICU?
The disturbing trend of diluting parliamentary scrutiny of laws is now going beyond "controversial laws" and becoming the nature of everyday business for the present government.
In the current monsoon session itself, over 20 Bills were passed without adequate parliamentary scrutiny. Some of these were key legislations related to social welfare such as the Factoring Regulation Bill, the Juvenile Justice Amendment Bill, and Tribunals Bill. The opposition has come down heavily on this "bulldozing of Bills", calling it a denial of their "legitimate right of discussion".
One such bill, the Tribunal Reforms Bill, is glaring example of how the government can use this "bulldozing of Bills" technique to override the law laid down by the Supreme Court.
The Tribunal Reforms Bill, which aims to "do away" with certain Tribunals under various Acts, has attempted to re-enact the very provisions struck down by the Supreme Court in the Madras Bar Association case. Appalled and shocked by such blatant disregard for its jurisprudence, the apex court on August 16 questioned the Solicitor General on why would the government move a Bill to override its ruling?
The Tribunal Reforms Bill comes just days after the CJI-led Bench of the Supreme Court rapped the central government for not filling up vacancies in tribunals across the country. Commenting on the lack of parliamentary debate on the Bill, CJI Ramana said:
"The hon'ble minister has said just one sentence, that the court has not struck down the provisions on ground of unconstitutionality. What should we make of this Bill? Should tribunals function or should they be closed? Of course the legislature has the prerogative to make laws. But at least we must know why the government has introduced the bill despite it being struck down by this court."CJI NV Ramana
The government's disregard for parliamentary scrutiny of key legislations is drawing flak from all corners - the opposition, judiciary, and those sections of the public that are affected by such laws. The government's own democratic credentials are being questioned, and rightly so. Instead of harnessing public representation, lawmaking in modern times reads like an eulogy for the possible demise of parliamentary democracy in India.
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