A few days ago, minutes after the Congress led a disruption of the proceedings in the Rajya Sabha over the controversy raging around the Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA), a colleague asked a senior Congress MP if the now routine tactic by the Congress-led Opposition to not allow Parliament to function would boomerang on the party. Wouldn’t it further alienate people from the Congress? The MP, who is also a senior functionary in his party, laughed. “When the BJP was in the Opposition, they also didn’t allow the House to function on one issue or the other; then we had said that the people would teach them a lesson; but that didn’t happen, did it? Look how they won in the Lok Sabha elections. Now, we are doing what they were doing when they were in the Opposition; and they are now saying what we were saying then.”
It’s the last Sunday of the month and I ought to apologise if I’ve started your day with an anecdote as cynical as that but I’m afraid that’s the way it is. The last two sessions in Parliament, monsoon and winter, were write-offs with hardly any business getting done. And despite its brute majority in the Lok Sabha (the NDA has 336 seats of the 543; the BJP alone has 282), Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are struggling to enact laws, many of them, such as the ones pertaining to goods and services tax, real estate regulation, and labour reforms, are considered crucial for growth, progress and development, all of which, ironically, were promises that presumably won the NDA a historic electoral mandate from the Indian citizens in 2014. That year’s elections witnessed a huge voter turnout — 66.44% compared with 2009’s 58.21% — and they reflected the aspirations and expectations of the people, who believed they were voting in a stable and decisive government.
Last Tuesday, LocalCircles, an Indian citizen engagement platform, released results of a survey on the winter session of Parliament. Of the large sample size of 19,000 people (many election exit polls have smaller samples) who responded, 92% wanted Parliament sessions to be extended to account for disrupted days; 86% wanted days set aside for the Opposition to raise and discuss issues that it wanted to; and an overwhelming 97% was in favour of executive orders that prevented disruption of Parliament. It’s not surprising that citizens feel the way they do.
If you look at it closely, Parliament’s productivity has been low not just for the past 19 months of the NDA government’s regime but for way longer than that. The 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14), during the Congress-led UPA 2’s regime, used just 61% of its allotted time in what was the worst performance of the lower house in over 50 years. The Rajya Sabha’s record was only marginally better — it used 66% of its time. That UPA regime was stuck in what was dubbed ‘policy paralysis’. It couldn’t move the land acquisition Bill for two years; it couldn’t notify its policy on FDI in multi-brand retail for nearly 10 months after a cabinet decision was taken; and it had to go slow on disinvestment and on key laws such as the GST, insurance and real estate. And while some of these things didn’t get done because key allies put a spanner in the works (the Trinamool Congress famously opposed the land Bill) many of the others didn’t happen because the government couldn’t manage to get Opposition support. And, of course, controversies over things such as 2G spectrum allocation, coal block allocation, and the Commonwealth Games scam repeatedly disrupted Parliament. Sounds familiar?
Sadly, it’s that sense of déja vù that we’re ending this year on. It would be churlish, though, not to end a year with some hope for the future. There’s reason for that. Before the washouts of the winter and the monsoon session was this year’s budget session, which by all accounts was the best session in India’s Parliament in 15 years — in terms of the number of Bills passed, time utilised and discussions held. Do you think our MPs could repeat that again in February 2016? Or would you want to go with that cynical chap I quoted in the beginning?
The author is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times. He tweets as @sanjoynarayan.