As the Monsoon Session ended abruptly on Wednesday, 23 September, in a bid to arrest the spread of the COVID-19 virus among lawmakers, the death knell for India’s parliamentary democracy has begun sounding louder.
Eight bills passed the Rajya Sabha in a flurry with no Opposition present, a travesty of the Constitution. It was no accident that boycotting MPs marched from Mahatma Gandhi’s statue to Dr Ambedkar’s and back, to mourn the betrayal of the values of both these Founding Fathers.
Despite the truncated nature of this session, this innings of Parliament will be remembered for three distinctive trends that emerged: missteps in planning, misguided policymaking, and this government’s misdemeanours.
Missteps In Planning: Amid COVID, Could We Not Have Convened A Virtual Monsoon Session?
First the missteps. With the total COVID cases inching towards 60 lakhs, not to mention India’s unenviable tag of being the ‘global leader in daily cases and daily deaths’, the logic of calling the Parliament into session was questionable. The average age of lawmakers in our country is currently 54. That of the Cabinet is 60. A significant number of lawmakers fall in the ‘at-risk’ group between 60-80.
In these circumstances, and keeping in mind the national picture, despite the Parliament staff working overnight to ensure that a number of precautionary measures were in place (including staggered timings, physical distance between seats, regular sanitisation etc), the prospect of Parliament convening physically was always a risky proposition.
Not that it shouldn’t have conducted its constitutional mandate of legislative business and oversight. On the contrary, as I had tried to repeatedly argue, surely efforts could have been made to replicate these processes in virtual form? Across the world, Parliaments and parliamentary committees have been conducting business virtually or in hybrid format, with some MPs attending and others joining in from home. India remains an outlier from these best practices, despite portraying itself as an IT giant and all the bluster about Digital India.
Knowing the risks involved, why did the government go ahead? Constitutionally, there cannot be more than a six-month gap between the conclusion of one session and the commencement of the next. With the Budget Session adjourning on 23 March, there was an obligation for Parliament to meet before 23 September (ironically the day it was prematurely adjourned again).
But this wasn’t the whole story. The government had invoked powers under Article 123 to promulgate 11 Ordinances during the inter-session period. Without replacing these with Bills, under the rules these Ordinances would expire in six weeks of the commencement of the new session.
And finally, the clincher: after the disastrous economic collapse provoked by their poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government had been forced to ‘unlock’ rapidly, in a bid to revive our flailing economy. With young students being forced to give critical exams like the NEET-JEE in the middle of a pandemic, and offices and workplaces reopening, it would have made for poor optics if Parliament itself remained shut on account of the virus.
So Parliament met in this half-baked fashion, rushed government legislation through, and adjourned on the day the news came in of the death of a serving minister.
Misguided Policymaking & Reducing Parliament To A Rubber-Stamp
This brings us to the misguided policymaking. The Ordinance route, normally meant to be used only in extraordinary circumstances, has frequently been deployed by this government to ram through questionable legislation in the absence of a sitting Parliament. That pattern continued during the Monsoon session.
Far-reaching Bills relating to agriculture and labour, two areas of transcendent importance in our predominantly agrarian country with a large working population, were passed over furious objections. The Opposition was agitated by the government’s push to deregulate agriculture without any consultation with the state governments, leaving our smaller farms vulnerable to the whims of larger corporations and the perils of contract farming, while the labour codes stacked the decks against workers’ rights and left unorganised workers particularly vulnerable.
The Opposition pointed out that most Government Bills violated Direction 19-B of the Speaker’s Directions, which requires the government to circulate copies of any legislation at least two days before it is introduced before Parliament—so that lawmakers get some time to study the draft law and develop suggestions to share with the government. But as we have repeatedly seen before, such basic courtesies and necessities have been dispensed with by this government, further reducing Parliament to a rubber-stamp, with little debate or constructive deliberation.
As I was constrained to point out in this tweet:
While the BJP used its brute majority in the Lok Sabha to steamroller its legislative agenda through, there was no discussion of border tensions with China, the New Education Policy (NEP) was neither introduced nor debated, the plight of migrant workers during lockdown was disregarded, raging unemployment ignored, and MPs could not confront the government on the economic collapse benighting the nation.
With Question Hour abolished for no good reason—it could hardly have been argued that MPs would be more vulnerable to COVID if questions were asked! The Opposition had no opportunity to prod ministers into providing unscripted answers to serious questions.
Misdemeanours: How New Laws Were Passed By Brazenly Subverting Age-Old Conventions
But the final feature of this short session was the misdemeanours—the manner in which the new laws were passed. Despite riding roughshod over federalism and despite the widespread mass protests by farmers that have erupted in states like Punjab and Haryana, the brazen manner in which the government subverted age-old conventions to rush them through both houses of Parliament is perhaps its gravest misdemeanour.
After using its brute majority to clear it from the Lok Sabha, the government, through the Deputy Speaker, disallowed a formal vote by division in the Rajya Sabha (where it only has a fragile majority and that too only with the combined strength of its coalition partners) to ensure the successful passage of the legislation.
Those who protested this desecration of parliamentary convention were escorted like convicts out of the House by marshals, and 8 MPs were suspended from participating for the remainder of the session. When the government refused to recognise the follies of its methods, the Opposition decided to boycott the remainder of the session in protest against this grave subversion.
If Assault On Our Institutions Persists, Confidence Of The People Will Erode
The one silver lining in the Lok Sabha—the thorough debate on the government’s mismanagement of the COVID crisis—was limited by the government’s unwillingness to provide cogent answers and engage with issues and suggestions raised by the opposition.
The prime minister loves to refer to the Parliament as the ‘temple of democracy’. It seemed as if the government is willing to destroy the ‘temple’ rather than permit prayers against its misrule to be heard there.
And as we have seen these last six years, when there is a rare opportunity for sensible debate on matters of serious importance to the country, the preference of the Modi regime is clear: the government will propose, the Opposition will oppose, and whatever the merits of the latter’s arguments, the government’s brute majority will dispose.
As I have argued in my book, The Paradoxical Prime Minister, such actions do not bode well for the future of our Indian democracy. If the assault on our sacrosanct institutions like Parliament persists, the confidence that the people of India have in these bodies will erode steadily and, in doing so, weaken the very pillars of the democracy that we take for granted today.
(Acknowledgement: The author acknowledges the invaluable assistance of John Koshy in preparing this article.)
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 21 books, most recently ‘Tharoorosaurus’ (Penguin). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)