The government must resurrect the dignity of Parliament
Political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson described a nation as an “imagined community”, a coming together of people armed with a common cause to build a new identity. India, however, is a land of a multitude of identities, each with its own faiths, ideas, opinions and issues. Our country banks on its institutions for drawing together the ideas that adequately represent its people, and consequently, the nation. It is for this reason that the role of Parliament, the primary institution that enables and strengthens this relationship between the State and its citizens, is indispensable to a representative democracy such as ours. It is this hallowed institution that makes the laws that govern citizens, scrutinises every decision of the government, and holds it accountable for its actions. Most importantly, it provides a platform to elected representatives to reflect on what must the government do to fulfil the needs and expectations of citizens. As former President Pratibha Patil said: “The Parliament of the country is the repository of the sovereign will of the people.”
In our carefully crafted plural democracy, we endeavour to ensure that every identity is allowed a safe space for representation and expression. The identities of 1.3 billion people, spanning the length and breadth of the nation, all come together within the chambers of the Parliament. Of course, in any room with 545 conflicting views and ideas, there are bound to be differences and disputes. But that, in no way, means these are intractable or that they cannot be resolved through deliberation and discussion. And for this reason, the government of the day has always borne the responsibility of ironing out differences across party lines, both inside and outside the House.
However, throughout this budget session, agitated members of political parties flooded the well, raising their voices in protest, their demands ranging from Special Status for Andhra Pradesh to the formation of the Cauvery Management Board. But the government, instead of making efforts to allay fears, misused this ruckus to shield itself from debate on issues it deems inconvenient. In fact, it did not even attempt to mollify its ally. Meanwhile, since the beginning, the Congress maintained that a discussion on the Rs 13,000-crore Nirav Modi scam, the Central Board of Secondary Examination exam paper leak, and no-confidence motion against the government, among others, are imperative. Even so, the BJP has been wrongly accusing the Congress of disrupting the House — just another one of its manoeuvres to deflect attention from the government’s failures. Its refusal to own up to its responsibility and make Parliament function led to a washout of the budget session.
It is unsurprising then that the last session has been among the least productive in almost two decades, not least because the Lok Sabha lost over 127 hours to disruptions, while the Rajya Sabha lost 120 hours. In fact, the government did not even deem it worthwhile to have a detailed discussion on its most important policy document, the finance bill.
But beyond this, it is regrettable that throughout the session, the government made no sincere attempt to find a way out of the impasse. It is widely known, and as widely accepted, that it is the incumbent government’s responsibility to ensure the smooth functioning of the Parliament. So it is indeed unfortunate, that the parliamentary affairs minister, who is chiefly responsible for making Parliament run, did not initiate any communication with other political parties, either inside or outside Parliament: no dialogue, no all-party meeting and no attempt to reach out to allies or the Leaders of Opposition, let alone other party leaders.
It is worth noting that the prime minister and his council of ministers can remain in office only so long as they enjoy the confidence of the Lower House, seeing as they are collectively responsible to the House of the People. Throughout the session, the Lok Sabha has repeatedly expressed its lack of faith in this government through multiple no-confidence motions, throwing the government’s legitimacy into question. When the government refused to admit the motions on the pretext of not being able to count numbers, we brought in placards to ease the process. And yet, the government dismissed each one of these motions and the serious debate they warranted, under the garb of “din”.
In the last one month, we have witnessed the ruling party openly aid and abet pandemonium in the Parliament to save itself from being held accountable by the nation. It is a pity that the government seems to have exclusively arrogated to itself the powers to decide what to debate, when to debate, and how to debate in Parliament, while the voices of over 450 other MPs have been disrespectfully dismissed. It seems the BJP’s penchant for intolerance has successfully, but unfortunately, infiltrated the chambers of Parliament as well. This is, yet another in a long line of distinguished institutions including the Reserve Bank of India and educational institutions, that the BJP has appropriated in its bid to stamp out dissent. If this isn’t an arbitrary and irresponsible misuse of power by the incumbent government, I can’t imagine what is.
The blame game will continue, but how do we fix the problem? Well, in addition to the government shedding its intransigence, we could also look to other parliamentary democracies for a way out. The British Parliament, for instance, sets aside 20 days in each parliamentary session, dedicated solely to discussing the issues laid down by the Opposition. Canada has 22 per calendar year. This serves two purposes: first, it gives the Opposition an opportunity to raise and discuss issues that the government would much rather sweep under the carpet, and second, it gives smaller political parties an equal chance to play a role in setting the agenda.
Another alternative is to expand the scope of recorded voting (or a “division”), currently limited to Constitutional Amendment Acts. This would pave the way for greater accountability of the member to the electorate, and ensure that the government engages in discussion with members of other parties and works toward building a consensus and resolving conflict. It would also open up more laws, legislations and decisions to a wider debate, discussion and consensus-building, as witnessed during the passing of the Central Goods and Services Tax Bill, 2017. Eventually, the onus of the functioning of the Parliament is with the government, and it is crucial for those in power to treat this issue with the respect and urgency it merits.
Already, this episode has engendered a widespread fatigue, and worse, disdain for lawmakers in the country. We cannot continue to “pride” ourselves on being the largest, youngest democracy.
It simultaneously infuriates and disheartens me that the incumbent government has brought Parliament to this point of devastation. It has taken us 70 long years to build up trust and respect for this institution. We cannot allow our democracy to be subverted. We cannot allow this disenchantment with our most representative institution to take root among the citizens.
If we truly wish to hold on to our treasured democratic credentials, we cannot allow the faith of 1.3 billion people to be eroded like this. This is a time of despair and disdain for every responsible citizen of our nation. If we think order will be restored on its own, we are truly living in a fool’s paradise. In my capacity as an MP and as a citizen of India, I can only appeal to the government to leave behind its political tactics and make serious amends to resurrect the dignity of the temple of our democracy.
The views expressed are personal