Productive but divisive monsoon session ends
Parliament’s monsoon session ended ahead of schedule on Wednesday, setting a new mark for productivity even as several parties sat out large parts of the legislation process, revealing heightened acrimony between the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and the Congress-led Opposition.
The session — which was held with unprecedented social distancing norms — also opened a new political front in the form of farmers’ protests, and reinforced the danger posed by Covid-19 as 32 members (including two ministers) tested positive, eventually cutting down the already truncated session by eight more days.
Both Houses approved a total of 25 bills, including three contentious bills for farm liberalisation and three for labour reforms, in the face of protests, walkouts and boycotts by opposition parties that accused the ruling side of denying them their parliamentary rights by pushing legislations without review.
The Lower House clocked 167% productivity in the session — the highest in the history of Parliament (and broke the 1967 record of 163% productivity in the fourth Lok Sabha), according to Speaker Om Birla, who also announced that on September 21, when the House ran till 12.35am, the productivity stood at 234%, another record.
To be sure, both Houses were allotted four hours daily instead of the normal seven-hour schedule as they had to convene on two different shifts in morning and afternoon due to social distancing norms in view of the coronavirus pandemic.
Birla said that 370 MPs could participate in the Zero Hour and Under Rule 377, and that this level of participation was almost double of that in the 15th and 16th Lok Sabha.
While Question Hour was suspended, the Lok Sabha saw 2,300 written answers while the Upper House 1,567 replies.
“The situation was extraordinary. We are also a big Parliament, in numbers. But the way the Houses were run both by the Rajya Sabha Chairperson and the Lok Sabha Speaker was outstanding. The political situation was also very tense,” parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi said.
Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said: “We are shocked to see how bills are passed since this government came to power in 2014. No bill is sent either to a standing committee or a select committee for further scrutiny. This is not good for democracy.”
The acrimony was evident even on the last day of the session with leaders of 18 opposition parties visiting President Ram Nath Kovind and requesting him to withdraw the farm bills, even as the Rajya Sabha pushed through the labour reforms with no opposition to any legislative activity.
Amid a boycott by opposition parties, Parliament approved the three key labour reform bills on industrial relations, social security and occupational safety with the Rajya Sabha passing them by voice vote.
Fierce protests led to nearly two days of the Rajya Sabha being washed out, yet the Upper House utilised 100.5% of its allotted time in what was its second-shortest monsoon session since 1952. Instead of the scheduled 18 sittings, only 10 sittings were held between September 14 and 23.
The Rajya Sabha has consistently recorded its highest productivity in the last four sessions and spent a record 58% of the business hours on passing bills during the session, against an average of 28% over the years.
But the ill will on display between the treasury and opposition benches bore testimony to a widening fracture in Indian polity, casting a shadow on the session and prompting the Opposition to contend that the productivity achievements being listed were meaningless.
One of the key flash points was the suspension of eight Rajya Sabha MPs over their unruly conduct during the passage of two of the three crucial farm bills in the Upper House on Sunday. The members heckled the deputy chairman, tried to uproot microphones and tear rule books and stood on the table.
On the last day of the session, members of opposition parties protested in different ways against the contentious farm bills, from holding a silent march in the Parliament complex to carrying bundles of paddy crop in their hands to rushing to the President’s House.
They made a representation to President Kovind and requested him not to give his assent to the bills. They conveyed to the President that the passage of the bills in Rajya Sabha was “unconstitutional”.
The session, held after a gap of six months due to the coronavirus pandemic, was marked by several new initiatives such as both Houses working in shifts; MPs from one House sitting in the chamber of the other and in the galleries; members working though the weekend and speaking while remaining seated; and plexiglass sheets on every seat as well as strict social distancing norms.
Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu said in his valedictory speech: “For the first time in this history of this august House, a notice of motion for removal of the Hon’ble Deputy Chairman has been given. It had to be rejected for the reasons I have elaborated while doing so. The developments in the House surrounding this unprecedented move have been deeply painful for all those who hold the stature and the dignity of this august House dear to their hearts.”
Naidu also added, “I would like to remind all of you that in 1997 and 2012, this august House had resolved that all the members will uphold the dignity of the House by complying with the Rules and Procedures laid down. If we adhere to these resolutions there will be order in the House and when there is order in the House, the House can function as the country expects it to function.”
Afzal Amanullah, former parliamentary affairs secretary said Parliament functioned during a very challenging time and proved once again that it can withstand any challenge.
“At the same time, the government should have walked an extra mile to take the Opposition into confidence on key issues and ensure a smooth process of parliamentary discourse. The latter, unfortunately, didn’t happen,” Amanullah said.