The monsoon session was a farce, writes Kapil Sibal
Proceedings in the recently-concluded sessions of Parliament have demonstrated that Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s concept of atmanirbharta (self-reliance) is not limited to the economic realm. These proceedings have also shown that in conducting the business of the House, the government is completely self-reliant: It does not need the Opposition, holds the views of other political parties in contempt, interprets procedures to suit itself and has no regard for the traditions of the House. This level of self-reliance saw parliamentary proceedings being converted into a farce.
The quintessence of democratic functioning in the context of parliamentary proceedings is that members sit in one chamber. This allows for feisty debates, thoughtful interventions and an open exchange of views as millions watch. However, during this monsoon session, members of both Houses were divided between the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, social distancing norms being the rationale.
This resulted in many of us belonging to the Rajya Sabha being accommodated in the Lok Sabha, connected by a large TV screen, looking at the Chairman presiding over the Rajya Sabha chamber. Fifteen members of the Rajya Sabha from the Congress were in the Upper House, 10 in the chamber and five in the galleries, while the remaining 26 were accommodated in the Lok Sabha. At the best of times, while sitting in one chamber, it is tough to catch the Chairman’s eye to make a contribution or to raise a point of order.
The majority of Congress members found it impossible to catch the Chairman’s attention. In effect, only 10 Congress members in the Rajya Sabha chamber were actively involved in the functioning of the House, while the majority was too far away to count. This logic was also true for other parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The essential element of parliamentary functioning is the significance of Question Hour. That is when ministers are made accountable. In this session, Question Hour was done away with. The only possible reason, albeit irrational, was that the sittings of each House were limited to four hours and, therefore, the accountability of the government was not as important as passing key legislations.
The only chance the Opposition has to expose the ineptitude of Treasury Benches was thus excised. Without Question Hour, the public watching these proceedings had no opportunity to assess responses of the government on key national concerns.
The other problem that made this session futile except for government diktats was its limited duration. Here the Rajya Sabha was at a disadvantage. The time allotted to it was from 9 am to 1 pm. The time allotted to the Lok Sabha was from 3 pm to 7 pm giving it the advantage of extension of its session by ascertaining the sense of the House. That advantage was not available to the Rajya Sabha since it had to end the session before 3 pm. This represented yet another form of discrimination.
One wonders why this session became necessary at all. The Ordinances relating to one, the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020; two, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Ordinance, 2020, and three, the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, could well have continued without calling this session, especially since there was no desire, considering the truncated nature of the proceedings, to either listen to the Opposition or for that matter allowing for reference of the bills either to the Standing Committee or Select Committee for a more thoughtful consideration.
For amending other laws requiring urgent attention, that too could have been done through the ordinance route since the BJP has shown time and again that debate and discussion are not the preferred mode of transacting legislative business.
As expected, the government was in no mood to refer any of these matters for further consideration. In light of the amendments moved, Opposition members demanded a division in the belief that 18 political parties in the Rajya Sabha, including those who otherwise support the BJP barring the Janata Dal (United), were opposed to the legislation in its present form. Had the division been allowed, that would have demonstrated widespread opposition to the ordinances.
The deputy chairman, allegedly, refused to order a division thereby preventing political parties from making their stand clear by recording their votes of dissent something perhaps not palatable to government. What followed was pandemonium with marshals being deployed to bring order in the House. The Chair then suspended eight members of the House.
All this acrimony is symptomatic of a mindset that brooks no opposition. The suspended members sat all night in protest under the gaze of the Mahatma in the Parliament house complex. The attempt by the deputy chairman to assuage their feelings by sharing a cup of tea with them in the morning was hardly a gesture that could have evoked a positive response. The session ended with the Opposition boycotting the remainder of the session with the leader of the Opposition registering his anguish at the manner in which the Chair treated him by curtailing his interventions.
In fact, this government takes pleasure in silencing the Opposition. Any form of protest is regarded as an affront to the Chair and any dissonance from the Opposition benches is silenced by shutting off the microphone.
To top it all, our self-reliant PM has never answered a question in either House since 2014. His preferred mode of communication is through monologues. A healthy dialogue is alien to his persona. He relies more on numerical rather than moral strength. It is time to say goodbye to the procedures which made Parliament the institution it was. Today, it is a pale reflection of its glorious past.