PM Knelt When Entering Parliament. That Respect Gone

Published: November 21, 2017 19:35 IST
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My first political book, "Inside Parliament: Views from the Front Row" - a compilation of essays on parliament, policy and contemporary political issues - will be in stores from November 24. The essay you are about to read didn't make it to the book. Actually, the urgency of the matter is playing out before us in real time. If my book were to have come out in six months' time, this essay would definitely have been included.

It deals with the BJP-led NDA government's cavalier disregard for parliamentary conventions - and, indeed, the government's skirting of not just the spirit but even the letter of the law. It deals with the absent and still-unannounced winter session of parliament, which may not take place at all simply because the government is running away from the legislature.

Every democracy runs the risk of devolving into a vulgar form of majoritarianism that denies basic protection to minorities and relegates rule of law in favour of the tyranny of the majority. One of the ways in which the drafters of the Indian constitution sought to check the power of the central government was to make it accountable to parliament. Every parliamentarian has the right to ask questions to the government, raise issues that affect her constituency and the nation, and demand that the government of the day be accountable for its actions.

As per the constitution, there should be an interval of no more than six months between two sessions of parliament. Yet, each year, broadly there are three sessions: the budget, monsoon and winter sessions. This is a matter of propriety rather than constitutional stricture. And that is how it has been since the beginnings of parliamentary democracy and practice in our country.

Why are regular parliamentary sessions so important? Simply because the representatives of the people have a right to bring issues before the highest forum of the land, place issues for the government's consideration, ask ministers questions, and get a sense of the ruling administration's policy ideas and approach. This is nuts-and-bolts democratic functioning.

The Prime Minister recognised this on March 3, 2016, when, speaking in parliament in the context of disruptions on GST and other issues, he said, "The House is a place where debates are to take place. When parliament sessions are not functional, the nation suffers and more than that, the MPs suffer because they can't discuss issues."

How does one reconcile such platitudes with the government not calling the winter session this year and deliberately avoiding the "place where debates are to take place" and causing the "nation [to] ... suffer because they can't discuss issues"?

I remember the day that the Prime Minister entered parliament in the summer of 2014, following the general election. There was much emotionalism and many pious words. Tears welled up in his eyes as he entered what he called the "temple of democracy". He bowed, with his forehead touching the stairs. He registered his respect for parliament as he entered it for the first time as a member.
 
narendra modi parliament stairs ap 650

Prime Minister Narendra Modi bows at the steps of parliament (May, 2014)

What has happened subsequently is a reversal of those claimed sentiments. Things have now reached a stage where the Prime Minister is refusing to visit his "temple" by not even calling the winter session.

This disregard for convention is not new. Since coming to power in 2014, this government has torn up many of the conventions that have existed since we became a republic in 1950. For example, it has changed the date on which the budget is presented. And it has merged the Railway Budget with the annual budget.

I am not against changing conventions if they need to be changed. But there should be an explanation and a sensitising of the public as to why this is happening. More so, an effort should be made to build a broad consensus on the change. The government has done no such thing.

The stubborn refusal to call the winter session takes things to another level. It is an attempt to upturn the fundamental convention and principle of allowing the legislature to hold the executive accountable through regular debates and discussions in parliament. This is a mocking of democratic practice.

It is worth remembering that even in the winter session of 2001, when parliament was attacked by terrorists, there was no adjournment of the two Houses, or sudden closure of the session. In fact, the Rajya Sabha suspended Question Hour for two days following the attack to discuss the emergency situation.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Lok Sabha used to meet for about 120 days in a year - a third of the 12-month period. In the past 10 years, this has come down to an average of 70 days a year. The House of Commons in the United Kingdom meets for 150 days in a year (average of past 15 years). The matching figure for the House of Representatives is 140 days.

A session is ordinarily called when the government is of the opinion that it has sufficient legislative business to be transacted. Between 1952 and 1962 - in the terms of the first two Lok Sabhas - the Rajya Sabha usually commenced 10-15 days after the Lok Sabha. It was felt the Rajya Sabha would otherwise have insufficient business. 

Now the scenario is quite the opposite. This government does not call a session despite having sufficient legislative business to transact. Instead, it chooses the ordinance route and in effect tries to govern in spite of parliament. This government has passed an average of nine ordinances a year, and has a much higher ratio of ordinances to bills compared to previous governments. 

This is not how it is in other democracies. In the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand the sitting calendar for parliament is announced at the beginning of the year. Why not in India?

And when parliament does meet, MPs and the opposition are often clueless about the business to be tabled till the 11th hour. The monsoon session of 2017 began on a Monday. The list of bills to be introduced in the session was made available on the weekend before the session started. As a result, little meaningful debate on legislation was possible at such little notice. The opposition was inconvenienced.

Or perhaps that was the purpose.

Derek O'Brien is leader, parliamentary party Trinamool Congress (RS), and Chief National spokesperson of the party. His new book, 'Inside Parliament: Views from the Front Row' is available for pre-order on Amazon and Flipkart.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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