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Parliament Winter Session: BJP’s Mockery of Legislative Democracy

In the Modi government’s second term, Parliament has ceased to be the deliberative forum it was intended to be.

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Opinion
5 min read
Parliament Winter Session: BJP’s Mockery of Legislative Democracy
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One more parliament session bites the dust. The Winter Session of Parliament concluded on Wednesday, adjourned sine die a day ahead of schedule. Just short of four weeks, the session portrayed a sorry picture of India’s legislative democracy in action.

Former Lok Sabha Speaker GMC Balayogi’s memorable aphorism about Lok Sabha sessions was, “All’s well if it doesn’t end in Well.” He was referring to the well of the House, the area in front of the Speaker’s Chair, the favoured location for Opposition protests. This winter session, not a single day passed without large numbers of Members of Parliament in the Well of both Houses.

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All Is Not Well 

The session was blighted by protests over a number of issues from Day One, starting with the government’s extraordinary decision to suspend 12 Opposition MPs in the Rajya Sabha for transgressions alleged to have been committed during the previous (Monsoon) session. The acrimony engendered by that unprecedented action – whose legality is debatable, since that session had been concluded and the House prorogued – carried through till the end, with MPs from both Houses showing solidarity with the suspended MPs who sat for 22 days at the foot of Mahatma Gandhi’s strike on satyagraha.

The Lok Sabha, barred from discussing a matter relating to the Upper House, was also frequently disrupted, notably when the Special Investigation Team (SIT) on the Lakhimpur-Kheri case declared the killing of four farmers to be a pre-planned conspiracy amounting to culpable homicide. This led to the Opposition demanding the resignation of Minister of State for Home Affairs, Ajay Mishra Teni, whose son is the principal accused in the murders.

On both issues, the authorities remained impervious, preferring to see Parliament disrupted than to respond, let alone give in, to the Opposition’s demands.

Manufacturing a Majority

In the Rajya Sabha, the Opposition alleged, with reason, that the unprecedented suspension of 12 MPs was aimed at “manufacturing a majority”, in Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Derek O’Brien’s words. Leader of the Opposition (LoP) in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, pointed out that while the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had 118 MPs, the Opposition had 120 in the House, and the suspension was to ensure the government got its way.

The authorities, in turn, claimed that all the suspended MPs had to do was to apologise. Kharge’s willingness to express regret collectively on behalf of all the suspended members was rejected by the ruling party, which insisted on individual apologies from each member.

For the government, the bare numbers told a happier story of accomplishment. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi told the press that over 18 sittings in 24 days, the productivity of the Lok Sabha was around 82% and that of the Rajya Sabha around 48%. Thirteen Bills (12 in the Lok Sabha and one in the Rajya Sabha) were introduced during the session, and 11 Bills were passed by both Houses of Parliament. A further six Bills were referred to Parliamentary Committees for examination, including the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill that seeks to increase the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21 years.

But these reveal very little of the travesty of both process and substance that the government has reduced Parliament to. Bills that were introduced and passed were pushed through without serious debate or discussion.

They included the controversial Electoral Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which seeks to link electoral rolls with voters’ Aadhaar numbers.

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Legislative Business Has Atrophied

Attempts by the Congress to raise key issues like price rise, unemployment, vaccination and the crisis on the China border were rebuffed. Even the farm law repeal Bill was passed without a debate in both Houses of Parliament, despite the Opposition demanding an opportunity to question the government on the rationale for bulldozing the laws through and then for their repeal. Accountability for the 750 farmers’ deaths in the 14-month agitation required no less.

In the Modi government’s second term, Parliament has largely ceased to be the deliberative forum it was intended to be. Legislative business in Parliament has atrophied: last year, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the government did not convene the Winter Session, and this year’s Budget Session was abbreviated due to Assembly elections in five states.

The Monsoon Session was disfigured by multiple disruptions, amid which government Bills were rammed through with minimal or no debate (the Lok Sabha took an average of 10 minutes to pass a law, the Rajya Sabha half an hour). The same story – a pattern of lack of discussion, disruption, avoidance of debate and hasty unilateral passage of laws – has been repeated in the Winter session.

Disruption also took a toll on the time-honoured instruments available to MPs to hold the executive accountable. Over 60% of the total Question Hour time available was lost, and for most of the remaining 40%, the only questions came from tame MPs owing allegiance to the majority, since the Opposition was protesting and the Speaker was proceeding with Question Hour amid the din.

Spirit of Constitution Has Been Trampled

Even the government could not fully use Parliament to pursue its planned legislative agenda. The Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021, intended to ban private cryptocurrencies, was not discussed. Key economic Bills, including one on the privatisation of two public sector banks, were not introduced.

Having triggered the protests in the Rajya Sabha with his suspension decision, the Chair, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu, sagely regretted “that the House functioned much below its potential” and called for introspection. The Opposition, for its part, ended the session by reading out the Preamble of the Indian Constitution at the protest site to make the point that the spirit of that “sacred book” has been trampled upon by the government.

In all this, the people of India are being ill served by their Parliament, which has been reduced to a combination of notice-board (for unilateral government announcements and actions), rubber-stamp (for government’s legislative agenda) and performance stage (for Opposition protests).

Neither the Lok Sabha nor the Rajya Sabha is fulfilling its function of deliberation, debate, considered law-making and holding the government accountable.

Without serious reform, the promised new parliament building is likely to prove a white elephant, a hollow coffin for the dreams and aspirations of our founding fathers who designed the institution as the temple of our democracy.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. 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.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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