Limited attendance, missing chatter in House
Parliament convened again after almost six months, with a packed Lok Sabha starting proceedings sharp at 9am.
But there was something not normal, or perhaps “new normal”, about the day.
Around 200 leaders were there in the hall, as was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, all separated by plexiglass sheets on three sides; another 100 were in the galleries; a smattering were in the Rajya Sabha hall, indicating that attendance was limited as expected.
All told,359 Lok Sabha lawmakers attended some part of the session -- a rapid-fire one, tinged with cautious enthusiasm among the lawmakers that they were back at work, but without the usual buzz; and the Opposition was subdued.
The Rajya Sabha started hearings at 3pm. Only 180 lawmakers from the Upper House were in attendance.The average age of the Rajya Sabha is 63 as compared to the Lok Sabha’s 54.
Through the day, there were reports of MPs from both houses who have tested positive for the coronavirus disease.
From Tuesday, the Rajya Sabha will have the morning shift and the Lok Sabha, the afternoon one.
The first day saw a brief protest by opposition parties when the government sought the approval of the House to scrap Question Hour, but it lacked any intensity -- perhaps because everyone was taking time to adjust to the overwhelmingly new normal and to restrictions such as sitting while speaking. “It’s like a cola without the fizz,” quipped an opposition MP about his experience.
But the pace of work was impressive. Thirty minutes of Zero Hour, an hour spent in obituary references, the passage of two bills, the introduction of two more to replace ordinances, the tabling of the first supplementary demand for grants by the finance minister -- and all in just a little more than four hours.
A little more because Om Birla, who has earned a reputation for allowing MPs to speak signalled his intent to get more business done. The lower House ran 15 minutes longer than scheduled. Birla even directed union health minister Dr. Harshvardhan to table his written reply, even as the minister insisted that he would like to read the entire statement on Covid for the benefit of MPs. The presiding officer also ignored AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi’s repeated demand for voting on the proposal to scrap Question Hour and private member’s bills and cut short long speeches of MPs during Zero Hour. According to his aides, Birla may run the House for longer hours in the remaining days.
The session is expected to last till October 1.
Outside, the complex wore a semi-deserted look: Hardly a few TV cameras, no aides of MPs or visitors hanging around and just a few cars. Security officials did their duty donning face shields and tricolour masks -- they were keen to prevent any crowding of lawmakers.
Inside, the MPs adjusted themselves to a new normal. When Congress’ Manish Tewari, sitting in the third row, demanded the inclusion of Punjabi in the list of official languages in J&K, two other Congress MPs, Jasbir Singh Bill and Ravneet Singh Bittu, sitting in the gallery, had to almost shout to include their names in favour of the demand. Both TR Balu and Adhir Chowdhury stood up a few times and Birla quipped, “I know it is difficult for Balu to sit and talk.”
The session started with a long list of obituary references before Birla explained the new arrangements in detail -- the daily shifts, the seats spread across both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha for MPs from both Houses and other points.
“This will also help those Rajya Sabha MPs come to the Lok Sabha,” he quipped.