In Parliament, a troubling phase
Loud protests disrupting proceedings leading to an unprecedented number of suspensions from both Houses of Parliament and a bitter face-off between two senior leaders of the government and Opposition after a regrettable comment on the President of India by another senior member, causing a furore: The unrest that roiled the second week of the monsoon session underlines a disquieting, but not surprising, drift in India’s parliamentary democracy. Data shows that over the past 15 years, the number of bills being passed in Parliament with little or no debate has grown, coinciding with a slide in the number of laws being referred to parliamentary committees or panels. This means that the two main functions of Parliament — scrutiny and debate — are under increasing stress. In effect, this means that issues that could be expected to be sorted out in the House in the past are deepening faultlines and jamming proceedings. Finding its political space squeezed outside the House, the Opposition is confrontational inside it and it appears that the authorities are prone to adopt a less-accommodating stance on protests (even if this gives the appearance of stymying Opposition voices).
This is a worrying phenomenon, especially in a country where state legislatures have long abdicated their role of deliberation and discussion. In Parliament, too, some signs of erosion are visible. The Lok Sabha was envisioned as reflecting the will of the people (or the majority, depending on which ideological dispensation one subscribes to). But a series of moves beginning in the 1980s has meant that the Rajya Sabha is in danger of losing its unique character as a House that represented the interests of various states — which could potentially counter-balance the legislative process being tilted in favour of the Centre — and acted as a countervailing force to the popular pressures of lawmaking. It is because of this raft of successive changes that the balance of legislative power now leans in favour of political parties, and not lawmakers or state interests, and therefore, there is little to distinguish the nature of the two chambers.
Parliament remains a pivotal organ of India’s democracy. It is the highest forum where minority voices and opinions can not only be heard, but also be counted. It is a check for creeping majoritarianism and politicisation. But inflexible attitudes adopted by parties over the past week underline serious deficiencies. It seems that the country is fast approaching a new and troubling phase in its parliamentary function.