The anguish of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court about the ‘sorry state of affairs’ in parliament and the ‘gaps’ in legislation due to lack of quality debates exposes the depleting health of parliamentary democracy. If this is the worrying view of the guardian of the Constitution, the suffering of the common man can be easily understood. The question is: what is the correct diagnosis and the correct cure? The monsoon session of parliament saw 28 per cent productivity in Rajya Sabha and 22 per cent productivity in Lok Sabha washed away and the government conveniently trained its guns on the Opposition benches, blaming them for the stalemate. It is true that democracy was disparaged in parliament and the stature of the august institution was lowered during the monsoon session that was adjourned prematurely, but who was it that attacked the soul of parliament? Was it the Opposition, which wanted a discussion on the burning issues of Covid management, price rise, farm laws and the Pegasus Snoopgate? Or the government, which, acting on its coercive agenda, bulldozed legislation through, undermining the popular mood which is the essence of parliamentary democracy? Sadly and tragically, in the fight between the government and the Opposition on the floor of the House, the people have become mute spectators and sufferers.
Parliament is not an extension of the Executive. It enjoys an inherent right to conduct its affairs and it is the sole judge of its own procedure. Questioning the government on the floor of the House is a legitimate right of Members and this is what constitutes the crux of the parliamentary democracy. Disruptions and pandemonium in parliament is nothing new, but the manner in which important bills affecting the lives and livelihood of millions of people were bulldozed and passed without any legislative scrutiny speaks of the ‘My Way or Highway’ attitude of the government. The country has seen leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee endowed with huge majorities, but they always allowed the Opposition their space in parliament. They were leaders who endorsed the principle that dissent is good for a healthy democracy. They were welcoming of probing questions and debates. If Nehru used to rush to parliament to listen to staunch critics like Hiren Mukherjee, Vajpayee dealt with the Opposition in his own characteristic style. Leaders like Dr. Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee were always willing to engage with the Opposition to find a way out for the smooth functioning of parliament. If the government sits with the Opposition with an open mind and a solution-oriented approach, and the Prime Minister remains present in the House and listens to the Opposition, the Opposition will rise to the occasion, and certainly there will be a way out to take forward the legislative agenda of the government. Ultimately, the government of the day must not forget that parliament is a platform for the Opposition to raise “Jann Ki Baat” and cannot be transformed into the PM’s “Mann Ki Baat” recording studio to avoid legislative scrutiny.
Statistics speaks of the intent of the government. The monsoon session saw a complete drought of civility and accountability. The Lok Sabha sat for 21 hours and 14 minutes against the stipulated time of 96 hours and during this period, the Rajya Sabha sat for 28 hours and 33 minutes. Whereas 13 bills were introduced in the Lok Sabha, 4 bills were introduced in the Rajya Sabha. 20 bills were passed in Lok Sabha and 19 in Rajya Sabha and except one bill, all others were passed without any discussion and without detailed examination by parliamentary committees. It seems the committee system has been dispensed with by the Modi Government except on paper. Important legislation like the Taxation Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 was passed in 6 minutes. 40 notices were given by Members in the Lok Sabha for discussion on several matters of urgent public importance under Rule 193 but only one was admitted -and the same was not discussed. Adjournment Motions by opposition Members on Pegasus, farm laws, price rise, etc. were rejected in both the Houses of parliament. Television channels of both the Houses ignored the existence of the Opposition. The Prime Minister attended parliament only for the introduction of his Council of Ministers and for the customary valedictory sessions. Members, including women, were manhandled in the Rajya Sabha.
At a time when the voice of the Opposition is being dismissed by the government as ‘noise’, the words of wisdom of Dr. Ambedkar in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly, are worth emulating. He said, “That I was not prepared to accept their suggestions does not diminish the value of their suggestions nor lessen the service they have rendered to the Assembly in enlivening its proceedings. I am grateful to them. But for them, I would not have had the opportunity which I got for expounding the principles underlying the Constitution which was more important than the mere mechanical work of passing the Constitution.” A combative government with no respect for the Opposition is not a healthy attribute of parliamentary democracy. By recognizing the Opposition as a stakeholder of the House, and by allowing for wider and more impactful participation in parliament, it is possible that some of the causes of disruptions would get addressed. The second important aspect is to recognize the role of parliament as an institution of accountability beyond legislation. The government needs to shed its allergy to being questioned.
(The author is a Supreme Court Lawyer and National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress.)
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