India’s unfortunate pivot towards a continual state of democratic backsliding under the current government has a new string of evidence, this one pertaining to a pervasive tendency of its elected Parliament towards non-function, limited activity, blighted by episodes of severe disruptions each session, and reduced debate on key Bills introduced.
The Budget session of Parliament was held from 31 January 2023, to April 6, 2023, with a recess announced from 14 February to 12 March. Parliament adjourned sine die on 6 April, having sat for 25 days. Most expenditure proposals were passed even without discussion in either of the House, as cited by recent data released from PRS Legislative Research.
Let’s look at some key figures.
Decline in Number of Bills Introduced and Passed
According to PRS data, “This has been the sixth shortest budget session since 1952. Lok Sabha spent merely 18 hours on financial business, of which 16 hours were spent on the general discussion of the budget”.
In the previous budget sessions of the 17th Lok Sabha, financial business was discussed for 55 hours on average. The expenditure of five Ministries (amounting to Rs 11 lakh crore) was listed for discussion in Lok Sabha, however, none were discussed.
“The proposed expenditure of all Ministries, amounting to Rs 42 lakh crore, was passed without any discussion. In the last seven years, on average, 79 percent of the budget has been passed without discussion”, the PRS Research team reported.
For Rajya Sabha, which discusses the working of select Ministries during the budget session. This session, it was to discuss the working of seven Ministries including the Ministries of Railways, Skill Development, Rural Development, Cooperation, and Culture. None were discussed.
See below a pie chart breakdown of business hours in both Houses.
The Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2022 was the only Bill passed during this session (excluding Finance and Appropriation Bills). This Bill as well as the Finance Bill were passed without any discussion by either House.
Furthermore, three Bills were introduced, one of which, the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee.
Overall, according to PRS Research, “In this Lok Sabha, so far, 150 Bills have been introduced and 131 have been passed (excluding Finance and Appropriation Bills). In the first session, 38 Bills were introduced and 28 were passed. Since then, the number of Bills introduced and passed has declined. Fewer than 10 Bills have been introduced or passed in each of the last four consecutive sessions”.
Is the current government to be blamed?
Two terms of the Modi government have particularly been responsible for identified trends.
As argued by Jawhar Sircar, the current government measures the ‘productivity’ of parliament “in terms of hours or minutes wasted in non-legislative business”.
During the current Budget Session, Sircar observes, “Usually, the Treasury benches open backroom channels to restore order in parliament, but in March, there was no question or intention for any such normalcy. The opposition put up with it all, including the threatening glass-shattering slogans of “Mo-dee! Mo-dee!” by shouting counter slogans demanding “JPC! JPC! We demand a JPC!” – calling for a Joint Parliamentary Committee into the Modi-Adani scam.”
“For two long weeks, from Monday, 13 March, the same scene persisted – during which members attended parliament only to be shouted down as per plan and the houses getting adjourned once after 11 am and then at 2 pm – with methodical regularity. The opposition started serious discussions on how to seize the initiative – especially when the government quietly passed the Finance Bill in the Lok Sabha amidst its self-created din, with no discussion whatsoever on 24 March.”
Less Time for ‘Questions’
At the heart of these issues is the more structural question of ‘accountability’ defining the status quo of a given state-citizen contract.
I have repeatedly argued in the past that there is a growing crisis of public distrust that one needs to resolve in India and beyond (this is not an Indian phenomenon alone but being faced by democracies across the world), particularly, to counter the pursuit of a rhetorical policy of ‘narrative control’ driving illiberal, majoritarian tendencies for electoral vote-capture.
Our book, Strongmen Saviours.., explained this worrying trend in context to democratic nations like Brazil, and Turkey too, beyond India, where similar efforts by populist leadership have weakened parliamentary institutions, and their due process while accompanying forces behind the rise of populist-authoritarianism, which adversely shapes the political economy landscape of the nation, while inhibiting processes of social cohesion and inclusive growth.
(Deepanshu Mohan is Professor of Economics and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)