A watershed moment for two democracies - Hindustan Times
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A watershed moment for two democracies

Jun 21, 2023 09:06 PM IST

Modi joins an elite club of leaders who addressed the US Congress more than once. This moment is ripe for our Parliament to imbibe a few good practices

Only five world leaders have addressed a joint session of the United States (US) Senate and House of Representatives more than once. Former British Prime Minister (PM) Winston Churchill and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel did it thrice. Nelson Mandela first spoke as a private individual in 1990, when the South African government released him from prison after 27 years. He came back four years later, as the president of his country. The then PM Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and, more recently, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine also addressed the US Congress on two occasions. On June 22, PM Narendra Modi will join this exclusive club. A US Congressman described the invitation to Modi as “the most important accolade that we recognise leadership across the world”.

The last time PM Modi addressed the US Congress was in 2016 when he noted that Indian and US legislatures shared several practices(Reuters) PREMIUM
The last time PM Modi addressed the US Congress was in 2016 when he noted that Indian and US legislatures shared several practices(Reuters)

Since 1940, there have been 126 addresses by foreign leaders to the US Congress. A cursory examination suggests that the invitation is more strategic than ceremonial. Countries with close relationships with the US, such as the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and Korea, are regularly invited to the Capitol. The timing is also key; for example, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed Congress in 2004, a few months after his country adopted a new constitution. Invitation to address the US Congress is also a proxy for the importance the US accords to the other country.

Former PM Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the two Houses of Congress separately in 1949. Rajiv Gandhi followed him in 1985. Since then, P V Narasimha Rao (1994), Atal Bihari Vajpayee (2000), Manmohan Singh (2005) and Narendra Modi (2016) have all addressed the US Congress. Due to both the weight of history and the strategic importance of US-India ties, Modi’s address this time will be a landmark moment.

The last time Modi addressed US legislators was in 2016. His speech touched upon multiple topics, including shared ideals of democracy, the Constitution and legislatures. He complimented the US Congress for empowering and encouraging democracies globally and for working harmoniously. He observed that the spirit of bipartisanship in the Capitol was also displayed by members in India’s Parliament, especially in the Rajya Sabha. He also noted that the two legislatures shared several practices.

He is right. Indian Members of Parliament (MPs) highlight constituency issues during zero hour, and US Congressmen utilise a one-minute speech for a similar purpose. The US vice-president (VP) is the Senate’s presiding officer, just like our VP is the presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha. But while there are similarities between the two institutions, a few good practices from the US Congress can strengthen our Parliament. Here are four.

First, the US Congress is in session for the majority of the year. As it meets for more days, there is ample time for deliberations on budgets and complex legislation. Also, its yearly calendar of sitting days is known in advance. For example, US Congress will take a break in August, and for the remaining part of 2023, the House of Representatives will meet for 50 days. A yearly legislative calendar allows for better planning or accommodating joint meetings to listen to world leaders. On the other hand, Parliament is in recess for most of the year, leading to the delayed passage of laws or rushed legislative debates.

Our Parliament can also learn from its American counterpart’s committee system. Congressional committees are powerful bodies that shape laws and hold the government accountable. Committees of the two Houses also have oversight abilities over the functioning of US intelligence agencies. For example, last year, the directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified and answered questions before the House Intelligence Committee. On the other hand, the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha committees depend on the government for their informational needs and on presiding officers to send bills to them for scrutiny.

A third key learning is the research that the US Congress provides to its members and committees in support of their legislative work. Individual legislators have budgets to hire research staff. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study and analyse policy, legislation and budget matters and provide inputs to members. The two organisations have a strength of 800 researchers who provide non-partisan and analytical research. In India, Parliament’s research arm requires urgent strengthening, and the institution does not financially support individual MPs to hire researchers.

And finally, US Congress members are not bound by the whips of their political parties. Republican and Democrat lawmakers are free to take positions that differ from those of their political parties and vote accordingly, without the fear of losing their seats. For example, some Republican senators voted to impeach President Donald Trump and, more recently, voted against the party’s Speaker candidate. The rules of the US Congress require the recording of individual votes cast, allowing people to question their elected representatives on policy issues. On the other hand, political parties in India bind the lawmakers by their diktats. The anti-defection law ensures that MPs can never disobey their parties.

The legislatures of the two democracies enjoy old ties. In 1954, our first VP, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, presented a gavel to the US Senate to replace its broken ivory gavel. Radhakrishnan, while addressing the senators, said, “On behalf of the young democracy of India and of the Rajya Sabha, I have the honour and pleasure to present to you, Mr vice-president, this gavel, in the earnest hope that the legislators of the Senate will discuss all problems, national and international with calmness and composure, with freedom from passion and prejudice with the one supreme object of serving your great people and the human race.”

We are still a young democracy, one that nations across the world look up to. If our Parliament is to function on the lines suggested by Dr Radhakrishnan — with calmness and composure, with freedom from passion and prejudice — it might benefit by adapting some ideas that have worked well in the US Congress.

Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research. The views expressed are personal

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