New Parliament, Old Governance

For instance, in expunging Rahul Gandhi’s comments, Speaker Om Birla’s partisanship was on full display.

4 min read

India’s recent parliamentary elections were hailed as having saved its democracy. Many Indians were critical of Prime Minister Modi’s authoritarian style of governance. Since the BJP lost its outright majority, they believed he would be more restrained and accommodating of other parties.

However, soon after the new political configuration, parliamentary proceedings and government actions show that India continues to be an “Electoral Autocracy,” where elections are held, but governance is autocratic.

If Modi's critics expected a humbled man after the elections, there are no such signs. “Modi is still strong,” he declared in a two-hour speech in Parliament last week. “I want to assure all Indian people that Modi is not one to be scared and nor will be his government.”

Such bluster is remarkable given that the recent election results were globally perceived to be a serious blow to Modi’s standing. Not only did his party lose 92 of its 303 Lok Sabha seats, but the verdict was a personal defeat as he was the star of the BJP campaign.

The elections also revived a dying Opposition under a brand-new alliance led by the Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s chief rival.


Balanced Election Results Don’t Necessarily Translate Into Good Governance

The BJP’s opposers were delighted with the results which were an impressive display of the Indian democracy’s pluralism. The verdict forced Modi to form a coalition. His BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government now depends on support from 14 different parties, most with only one or two parliamentary seats. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Janata Dal [United] (JD[U]), both regional parties, are the two largest partners, with 28 seats between them.

However, balanced election results don’t necessarily translate into good governance, since our system of government is inherently authoritarian. Unlike the US Presidential system, India’s parliamentary system doesn’t separate executive and legislative powers, give state and local governments independent control, or allow Members of Parliament to vote against their parties.

Instead, it grants the Prime Minister monarch-like power, allowing them to act arbitrarily with regard to laws, investigative agencies, party apparatus, taxpayer money, and so on. India has seen all-powerful PMs before in Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

The new Modi government is no different from the last one. Loyalists have been assigned to key portfolios, with no change in the top four ministries. The Home Ministry stays with Amit Shah, Finance with Nirmala Sitharaman, External Affairs with S. Jaishankar and Defense with Rajnath Singh. Eight Cabinet committees were reconstituted, but Modi remains at the helm of nearly all.

Such a leader cannot be restrained by a coalition, especially when the coalition partners are as small and regional as the NDA. Both TDP and JDU are interested only in securing money and support for their regional aspirations and have squarely fallen in line with the BJP. Not even a word of protest was heard when staunch BJP leader Om Birla was reappointed Speaker of the Lok Sabha.

In Expunging Rahul Gandhi’s Comments, Birla’s Bias Was on Full Display

They were also in lockstep when Birla decided to omit Rahul Gandhi’s remarks attacking the BJP’s Hindutva agenda from House records. They are not likely to wrestle with Modi’s national agenda or functioning style. Nor are they in any position to threaten the coalition, for they can be replaced given the BJP’s vast resources, control over investigative agencies, and experience in persuading MPs to switch parties.

So, the authoritarianism in India continues, as was evident in Parliament last week. Unlike the US House of Representatives, where members elect the Speaker in fiercely contested ballots, the Lok Sabha Speaker’s appointment is controlled by the Prime Minister. Once selected, a Speaker is under no risk of losing the position as long as he continues to do the PM’s bidding. In contrast, in a recent episode in the US House, it took Kevin McCarthy 15 ballots to get elected as Speaker, and he was kicked out of office in less than nine months by members of his party.

India’s pliable Speaker, controlled by a party leader and Prime Minister, acts in a partisan way with impunity. He suspends MPs, expunges their comments, shuts down debate, and dissolves the assembly, all to please his master. Similar actions were taken against the Opposition leaders in the Rajya Sabha, which is unaffected by the recent elections and continues as before under the chairmanship of Vice President Dhankhar of the BJP.

In expunging Rahul Gandhi’s comments, Speaker Birla’s bias was on full display. He ordered a complete deletion of an Opposition leader’s attack on the ruling party’s policies and ideology. Rule 380, which gives the Speaker the authority to do so, is nothing but an authoritarian tool at the disposal of the ruling party. It allows the Speaker, a ruling party member, complete discretion without due process or remedy.

In the US House, by contrast, there is a mechanism for deleting a member’s disorderly or unparliamentary remarks. Another member must make a formal demand, the member alleged can withdraw the remarks, the Speaker can consult the House parliamentarian, and if the remarks are deleted there is a process of appeal. As a result, of the 170 times the rule was invoked in a recent 50-year period, the US Speaker ordered deletion in only 25 instances. In nearly every case, it was because the member engaged in a personal attack on another member.

If India truly wishes a Parliament that functions effectively, and governance that is less autocratic, it must reduce the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office. As demonstrated in the recent elections, what appeared to be a huge win for Modi’s Opposition has not significantly influenced India’s reality. Following the example of the US House, leadership must be dispersed, and laws rewritten for India to be a true democracy.

(The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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