It’s what you can probably call governance by ordinance. In the seven months since the Narendra Modi government came to power in May 2014, its Cabinet cleared 11 ordinances, 10 of which have already become law after the President of India promulgated them. The numbers — 11 ordinances in seven months — may be a record. During the 10-year UPA regime, a total of 59 ordinances were promulgated. Law making through the ordinance route has become routine although the provision in the Constitution is for it to be a quick fix, a means of coping with urgency when immediate action is called for and where the constitutional provisions of passing a law by introducing a bill in Parliament are not available.
The government justifies the spate of ordinances, saying that it demonstrates its focus to push reforms and development. And that it has used the ordinance route to break through the logjam in Parliament. It points out that important reforms — such as the one that will allow foreign investment in the insurance business, or the one that will reallocate coal blocks through public auctioning, or another that makes it easier to acquire land for industry — would have been delayed had it not adopted the ordinance route.
But not all of the 11 ordinances are reform-oriented. Some, such as the one that regularises 895 unauthorised Delhi colonies, and another that allows e-rickshaws to ply their trade in the city-state have been pushed post-haste with an eye on the Delhi elections. Others, such as the Modi government’s very first ordinance to amend the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Act, were the result of a silly goof-up: The government appointed former TRAI chairman Nripendra Mishra as principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office before realising that it violated the TRAI Act, which then had to be amended through an ordinance. Yet another ordinance that gives life-long visas to persons of Indian origin (PIOs) was pushed through ostensibly because the prime minister wanted to keep a promise he’d made when he addressed the Indian diaspora in the US last year.
The easy explanation for adopting the ordinance route is the paradoxical nature of the NDA’s numerical strength in Parliament: In the Lok Sabha it has an overwhelming majority of 334 out of the 543 seats; but in the Rajya Sabha it has just 62 out of the 250. So passing bills in the Rajya Sabha is an obvious challenge for the government. To compound its troubles, during late last year’s winter session, disruptions in Parliament over remarks by some of Modi’s own partymen — MPs and ministers — that were communal and inflammatory made sure that no business could be conducted.
An ordinance can be promulgated only when Parliament is not in session and has to be approved by both houses within six weeks after the next available session begins. If the government cannot get an ordinance passed by Parliament, it can ask the President to re-promulgate it — a process that can, in theory, be repeated as many times as required, provided the President agrees to do so. But in the end, an ordinance is a temporary fix, not a permanent one.
The flurry of ordinances may be the government’s way of showing that it is serious about going about its business and its agenda of development but it also exposes a weakness. Past governments (with lesser mandates than what the NDA now has) have used deft floor management in both houses of Parliament to get bills passed. But not the ruling alliance. Its insurance bill, which even the Congress was pushing for, couldn’t get a smooth passage.
The NDA’s numerical deficit may change in mid-2016, when elections for 70 Rajya Sabha seats will happen and 14 states, including seven where the BJP and its allies are strong, will elect Upper House members. But till then, in keeping with the spirit of parliamentary procedure, the government would do well to shut down its ordinance factory and employ more tact on the floor of Parliament.