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Upstaging Democracy One Bill at a Time: Ousting Opposition is Just the Beginning

The government using the Opposition's absence to pass contentious bills doesn't bode well for the institution.

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Opinion
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A democracy without an Opposition is not only inconceivable, it is downright dangerous.

As the late US President Harry Truman famously warned in an address to the US Congress on internal security matters, "Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.’’

The spectacle that is playing out in the penultimate session of Parliament before the next Lok Sabha elections should worry all those who take pride in India’s democracy and its rich parliamentary tradition.
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Opposition’s Parody of Democracy

As many as 141 Opposition MPs in both Houses have been suspended since the Winter Session began on 4 December, with 78 of them debarred in just one day, setting a record of sorts.

That’s virtually the entire Opposition, with the exception of MPs of "friendly’’ non-BJP parties like Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Andhra CM Jagan Reddy’s Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), and former Telangana CM K Chandrashekar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS).

The trigger for this unprecedented step was the Opposition’s demand for a statement from Union Home Minister Amit Shah on the recent security breach that saw four people enter Parliament and set off coloured smoke canisters inside the Lok Sabha and outside the grounds.

Ironically, while the government refused point blank to report back to Parliament on this shocking incident, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah were happy to give interviews to a TV channel and a leading newspaper, respectively.

The unfortunate part of the entire episode is that instead of treating the government’s stonewalling as a serious contravention of time-honoured parliamentary conventions, the Opposition fuelled the mockery of democracy with a skit mimicking Vice President and Rajya Sabha chairman Jagdeep Dhankhar.

The parody was the handiwork of TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee who performed on the steps of Parliament building even as Rahul Gandhi filmed him with his mobile phone camera. The moral high ground was lost.

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Bills Passed Without Opposition Negates Parliament’s Institutionality

For the public at large, it would seem that neither the ruling party nor the Opposition takes Parliament seriously. The nerve centre of democracy where vital decisions are taken and crucial legislation is made would appear to have been reduced to a circus of chaotic scenes, sloganeering, frequent disruptions, and dysfunction.

It doesn’t bode well for the future of the institution, especially since the government used the absence of the Opposition to ram through contentious bills.
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Three criminal law bills to replace the IPC, the CrPC, and the Indian Evidence Act have been passed by the Lok Sabha without adequate discussion, although there are widespread concerns in legal circles about their ramifications.

It is not difficult to understand why the government threw caution to the wind and used a sledgehammer against the Opposition. The security breach is a huge embarrassment for two reasons:

  • One, it exposed the vulnerability of Modi’s showpiece newly built state-of-the-art Parliament building supposedly equipped with the latest security gadgetry.

  • Two, the MP who apparently facilitated the entry of the attackers is from the BJP – Pratap Simha, elected from Mysuru. Their visitor’s passes were issued in his name.

The BJP would obviously like to bury this discomfiting bit of information. The best way is to avoid a discussion in Parliament so that nothing goes on record for posterity. An inquiry has been ordered but few expect much to come from it.
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Is Slashing the Opposition BJP’s Masterstroke Before 2024?

There is a political angle to the current fracas as well. The BJP is riding high after pulverising the Congress in the recent Assembly Elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan.

The large-scale suspension of Opposition MPs is part of psyops in the run-up to the high-stakes general elections next year. The aim is to further demoralise an already dispirited opponent by silencing its voice in the highest forum of democracy.

It is ironic that the last time something as dramatic as this happened was in March 1989 at the fag end of late Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure. Like PM Narendra Modi, Rajiv Gandhi too had a brute majority in the Lok Sabha. In fact, his numbers were even larger at 404 compared to the present NDA regime’s 353.

In one stroke, 63 Opposition MPs were suspended for protests over the Thakkar Commission report into Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The report pointed a "needle of suspicion’’ at her former private secretary RK Dhawan.
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Significantly, this too happened in the last but one session of Parliament of Rajiv Gandhi’s term. In the next session, which was the monsoon session and the last one before the Lok Sabha polls that year, the entire Opposition resigned from Parliament. The Congress went on to lose the election in the winter of 1989.

History may not repeat itself but the events of the past fortnight are a disturbing reminder that governments with an oversized majority are often tempted to ride roughshod over the Opposition when the latter is small and seen as weak.

(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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