Official spokespersons have hailed the recently concluded Budget session of Parliament as unprecedented both in terms of its hours of work as well as its performance. The 17th Lok Sabha, which was convened on June 17, held 37 sittings that extended over 280 hours till it was adjourned sine die on August 6. Sometimes House sittings were extended into the late hours. The Rajya Sabha, which met on June 20, held 35 sittings till it was adjourned sine die on August 7. The spokespersons of both Houses claimed that productivity was approximately 137% and 103%, respectively, denoting the hours of work put in. While the Lok Sabha spent 46% of its time in legislative business, the Rajya Sabha spent 51%, a record in recent years.
There were 40 Bills that were introduced during this session (33 in the Lok Sabha and seven in the Rajya Sabha). While the Lok Sabha passed 35 bills, the number was 32 in the Rajya Sabha; 30 bills were passed by both Houses of Parliament. In the Lok Sabha, 183 starred questions were orally answered while 1,066 matters of urgent importance were taken up; 488 issues under Rule 377, that requires advance notice and approval of the Speaker, were attended to. The Lok Sabha Speaker, Om Birla, repeatedly drew attention to the equality of the members of the House cutting across party differences, and extending opportunities to new and young members. Out of 265 first time members, 229, including 42 out of 46 women members, found an opportunity to express themselves in the House.
All this sounds impressive and there is much to commend for a functioning House especially after the pandemonium witnessed during the sessions of the 15th and 16th Lok Sabha. But can we say that the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha was representative of the concerns and demands of India’s complex, inegalitarian and deeply diverse polity, eliciting the responses of the government for its acts of commissions and omissions, and holding it accountable for its performance? Or, should we say, both the Houses were craftily streamrolled to sing to the tune of the government?
About half the time of both the Houses in their respective sessions was spent on legislative measures. Parliament has to be credited for passing some bills that enjoyed a broad consensus such as the Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, the Consumer Protection Bill, and the Supreme Court (Number of Judges) Amendment Bill, although questions have been raised on whether these bills and the way they were framed, were the most appropriate ways to further their intent. However, many of the bills passed by the Houses were matters that led to deep division and contention within the polity, such as the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, the Aadhar and Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment (UAPA) Bill, and the Codes on Wages.
Some of the bills passed by the Lok Sabha such as the Inter State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill 2019, the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, and the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2019 definitely called for a wider and closer discussion. Many of the bills, such as the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, which was passed by both the Houses, had bearing on powers of the States and tended to reinforce the powers of the Centre. And indeed, the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019 introduced in the Rajya Sabha surreptitiously, on the penultimate day of its working, and passed by the Lok Sabha on its last working day, changed the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, hitherto protected under Article 370. It split the State into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.
All these legislative measures, particularly, the last one, which intend to define Indian polity in crucial ways — and will undoubtedly have enormous implications for the future of constitutional democracy in India — were passed without routing any of the bills concerned through the Standing Committees of the Parliament, or Select Committees. Given the paucity of time, there was little possibility of subjecting them to closer reflective scrutiny. The government was obviously aware of this. In fact, at times it seemed the generous time that the Speaker of the Lok Sabha gave to new members was at the expense of the rectitude of these bills. Worse still, the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill that radically modified Article 370, had to be assented to by the Constituent Assembly of the State, by its very provisions. Since the State Assembly remained dissolved and it is under presidential rule, the sleight of presidential powers was employed to move it. Little consideration was extended to reflect popular opinion, with the political leadership of the Kashmir Valley (on which the bill has the gravest consequences) under internment, and the whole population kept incommunicado.
The legislative measures that the National Democratic Alliance-II leadership embraced, and the mode of piloting them through the Houses have conveyed, loud and clear, a four-fold message. First, the task of Parliament is not to discuss and debate, shape and reshape measures for public good, and ensure oversight, but merely play second fiddle to the executive leadership. Therefore, criticism and debate over the bills was kept to the minimum, if avoided altogether. There was no attempt to form the 24 departmentally related standing committees before the session, or early in its day, to which bills could be referred to for scrutiny and review or form subject committees for the purpose. The plea of some Opposition members of the Houses in this direction was all in vain.
Second, formal legal equality of citizens would be on premium and all differential considerations on grounds of disadvantage or considerations of diversity would be suspect: Therefore, Articles 370, 35A, and Sharia provisions were sought to be modified, while commitment to human rights in general, was reinforced by recrafting the National Human Rights Commission through The Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill.
Third, there was an enormous strengthening of the surveillance and investigative instrumentalities of the State not merely through the UAPA, but also in bills pertaining to the economy and financial transactions. In these measures the ‘lethal machine’ of the State was on full display against the prevalent ascription of a ‘soft’ state.
Fourth, legislative measures and amendments such as the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, highlighted the emergence of an institutional hierarchy, demoting key positions, involving transparency and accountability, to executive discretion. The institutional hierarchy of authority, where the higher rungs were cushioned from the lower ones, was vividly there to see in the way in which the name of the Prime Minister was invoked by Ministers and member after member of the ruling dispensation as the font of wisdom, foresight and concern. Clearly, the attempt to craft a docile Parliament had gone a long way.
Impact on democratic ethos
In the past, there was much that was lacking in the composition and functioning of Parliament. There was also little to defend the way the Opposition had made a habit of boycotting the House and stalling its proceedings, although at times it was the most effective way of demanding responsiveness, and even to air popular grievances. At the same time, it should be said, Parliament was grappling with coming to terms with its own institutional working to be the voice of democracy. If the proceedings in the recently concluded session are a clue to its future, then Parliament has been securely chained to India’s state juggernaut.
Valerian Rodrigues taught Political Science at Mangalore University and Jawaharlal Nehru University