Parliament and parliamentary norms have been undermined by the rise of adversarial politics (perceiving the Opposition as an adversary rather than a partner in the lawmaking process) and a domineering executive that has sidelined all other institutions. Parliament was intended to function as a body that keeps the executive in check but it seems to be working the other way now.
“The basic problem starts with the government’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Opposition and give space to it to express its position on any issue. Instead, the effort has been to paint the entire Opposition as sore losers and frustrated disruptors who aren’t reconciled to the PM’s popularity and the BJP’s electoral victories. With the Opposition not falling in line, the government has used its majority to push through important Bills without discussion.”
The stormy monsoon session of Parliament, adjourned sine die last week, was a virtual washout because of the deadlock between the government and the Opposition over issues ranging from the Pegasus phone-hacking row to the government’s handling of the pandemic and the farmers’ protest. The government attacked the Opposition, accusing it of not allowing the Parliament’s monsoon session to function.
To put all the blame on the Opposition for the impasse in Parliament obscures the government’s share of responsibility for this denouement. A closer look at parliamentary proceedings reveals that the session was disrupted by the ruling party’s deliberate deflection and stubborn refusal to discuss issues of national importance.
The faceoff between the government and Opposition escalated over the Pegasus issue, resulting in the non-stop disruption of Parliament. This government, having a huge majority, has nothing to fear, and yet it refused to be flexible and accommodating towards the Opposition or even acknowledge the public issues raised by the latter.
With both sides unwilling to give in, acrimonious events marked the session with legislators on both sides engaging in competitive disruption. The embarrassing turn of events led the government to field seven ministers at a press conference to take on the Opposition on the adjournment issue and to determinedly dismiss the snooping scandal as an issue of no consequence. Besides the Pegasus issue, government-Opposition relations hit rock bottom on the controversial Bill to enhance the private sector’s role in public sector insurance companies. Opposition MPs asked for the Bill to be sent to a select committee but the government didn’t agree. The Insurance Business Amendment Bill was passed amidst high drama which rocked the Rajya Sabha, culminating in allegations of physical violence from both sides. Only an impartial inquiry can establish the veracity of the charges and counter-charges. But the issue is why we have come to this pass.
The basic problem starts with the government’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Opposition and give space to it to express its position on any issue. Instead, the effort has been to paint the entire Opposition as sore losers and frustrated disruptors who aren’t reconciled to the PM’s popularity and the BJP’s electoral victories. With the Opposition not falling in line, the government has used its majority to push through important Bills without discussion.
The extent to which parliamentary proceedings have degenerated can be seen from the astonishing speed in passing Bills. The Lok Sabha, on an average, took less than 10 minutes to pass a law, and the Rajya Sabha passed laws in less than half an hour. There were 13 Bills in this LS session in which no Member of Parliament spoke, other than the minister in charge of the Bill.
In addition to this, the PRS Legislative Research data has shown a significant decrease in the involvement of standing committees in legislative matters. So far, only 17 of the 82 Bills since the NDA government was re-elected in 2019 have been referred to standing committees for review. No Bills had been sent to the Select Committee in the monsoon session. All this raises legitimate concerns of bypassing important checks and balances in the parliamentary system. What is more, Bills were passed in the midst of din and noise with no consideration to the Opposition protests.
Not surprisingly, the government accomplished its entire legislative agenda without a debate on the Pegasus affair, Covid-19 mismanagement, farm laws, and the deepening economic crisis. However, passing Bills without debate in the House or scrutiny by a committee reduces Parliament to a clearance window for legislations. This effectively means Parliament was neither fulfilling its function of deliberative lawmaking nor of holding the executive accountable.
Democratic accountability demands that the executive decisions be subjected to legislative scrutiny. While this session might represent a new low in this regard, the lack of scrutiny is not new.
Take the case of the national lockdown which was never debated in Parliament as sessions were either cut short or adjourned. Unlike parliaments elsewhere, the Indian Parliament did not devise modalities to be functional during the pandemic. No proposal to allow digital meetings of standing committees was taken up at the top level even though the Opposition repeatedly demanded it. Parliament’s functioning was even more severely restricted in the second wave of the pandemic. Standing committees of the Parliament didn’t meet after the second wave. Virtual meetings weren’t permitted even though plenty of public meetings and election rallies were held during the second wave.
Even when Parliament assembled, laws were passed without adequate deliberation. Both the farm laws and labor codes were passed without discussion. The labor codes were passed in the absence of Opposition MPs who had boycotted the session. The government pushed the farm Bills, ignoring the demand to send them to select committees, provoking fierce protests from the Opposition benches.
The manner in which the Bills have been passed in this and in some previous sessions shows utter disregard for the democratic system, disdain for the parliamentary processes and contempt for the Opposition. This has weakened the significance of Parliament to the point of inconsequence. The proposal to turn Parliament House into a museum is emblematic of this new reality.
Finally, Parliament and parliamentary norms have been undermined by the rise of adversarial politics (perceiving the Opposition as an adversary rather than a partner in the lawmaking process) and a domineering executive that has sidelined all other institutions. Parliament was always intended to function as a body that keeps the executive in check but it seems to be working the other way round now.
The MPs exercise accountability on behalf of the people they represent. Questions and debates are used for this purpose, but neither of these tools is functioning effectively these days, which greatly damages our democracy.
The government has weaponized the electoral mandate to dispense with the need for consultation and debate both inside and outside Parliament. This compounds the problem of accountability and representation as the meaning of democracy shifts from a representative to a majoritarian one, giving the executive the upper hand in most matters.
(The author is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, JNU)