A new Parliament building is being constructed, but what is going on in the historic old structure should worry anyone concerned with upholding democratic norms. The current monsoon session of Parliament took place after the Budget session was shortened (Covid-19 was given as an excuse, but many politicians headed off for campaigning in the Assembly elections in March-April). That session had taken place after the winter session of 2020 was cancelled and the two sessions preceding that cut short due to Covid.
This session should, therefore, have been an opportunity for the elected representatives to speak on issues that concern those who voted for them. Instead, we got a washout of a session where the government managed to pass 30 Bills with an average discussion time of 10 minutes on each law that will impact our lives. Simultaneously, only 11 per cent of legislation was sent to parliamentary committees for scrutiny (compared to around 70 per cent during the second term of Manmohan Singh) which means that the new laws were neither debated nor examined by the experts.
That basically shows that Parliament is not doing its job. Sadly, this also suggests that the government managed to take advantage of the Opposition’s determination to boycott the House till there was a structured debate on the issue concerning the use of Pegasus spyware and the laws that led to the ongoing farmers’ protests.
So why has Parliament turned into such a disaster? First, the ruling party has a simple majority in the Lok Sabha and its inclinations are to have their way or the highway. Parliamentary rules are such that it is in the hands of the government to set the agenda and list Bills. The BJP-led NDA has been able to get away with this attitude because we are in that phase of public life where the cult of one leader is propagated and the democratic instincts that parliamentary tradition demands are being snuffed out in the nation’s pre-eminent ruling party. Simultaneously, with some notable exceptions, the traditional media has also chosen to abandon the task of speaking truth to power,
making it possible for the regime to get away with this approach. The belief is that they control the dominant narrative, and therefore, Opposition voices can be ignored.
The pathetic state of the national Opposition does not help. The Congress is supposed to be the leading party in the pack but they do not have parliamentary leaders who inspire too much confidence while uncertainty over leadership and factions also drags down the morale of the old guard, some of whom are still excellent individual MPs. Compare that with the era of UPA-II where two very talented BJP parliamentarians, who passed away in 2019, were the Leaders of the Opposition. Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj were skilled in both parliamentary boycotts and in making their point inside the House, besides spinning the media. Asked about a policy of disrupting Parliament over the various scams that devastated the image of the Manmohan Singh government in its second tenure, Jaitley would say that although ideally, Parliament is a forum for debate and legislation, disruption is also a valid way to bring public attention to an issue and exercise a democratic right.
Yet, he was not out to destroy Parliament just as the old guard of the BJP when it first came to power, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, who also functioned within accepted parliamentary traditions. But today’s BJP is a crowd around a leader. They are fundamentally yes-men and women who have no locus standi to say very much unless tasked to ram through legislation, remain loyal and/or make hysterical accusations against those who dare question their high command. That high command embodied in the prime minister, meanwhile, has not answered a single question in Parliament for over six years, just as he has not had a single press conference during his entire tenure in Delhi.
With the Congress still mired in existential questions, there is also a lack of clarity whether the so-called G-23 leaders (those who wrote a letter seeking a rehaul of the party) is the grouping the larger Opposition would rather work with. A well-attended dinner for Opposition leaders, hosted by veteran Congressman Kapil Sibal, only added to the speculation. Meanwhile, it has been the regional parties that have looked more robust in leading the Opposition charge. Indeed, if there is one purpose that this session may have served, it is to establish the need for Opposition unity, as flagged by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Her party MPs have been the most energetic in framing the debates at hand, be it in the positioning inside Parliament or the outreach to the national media. Still, the idea of Opposition unity is fluid and in the early stages of a work in progress. But just as the Left parties had influence on parliamentary discourse during UPA-I, the TMC is managing to do so in the age of NDA-II, arguably the worst time for parliamentary democracy after the Emergency.
But as this session draws to a close, it’s worth asking if the Opposition could have been more dexterous in its handling of an obdurate government that made it clear that it would not be discussing Pegasus. Could there have been a more layered strategy of protesting and giving press statements on the issue of snooping and privacy while pushing for debates on other issues? As it is, it’s clear the regime will not order an investigation into the purchase of the Pegasus spyware unless ordered by the Supreme Court to do so; new information is more likely to come from investigations in other impacted countries such as France. Besides, Pegasus is an important issue but not one that has traction on the ground in election bound states such as Uttar Pradesh or Punjab.
There are innumerable issues to debate in Parliament after the worst two years in recent memory besides the Bills that were passed relating to vital sectors that impact all Indians. Issues that concern people are price rise, job losses, shrinking economy, deaths in the second phase of Covid, misreporting the figures, vaccination policy, firing on the Assam-Mizoram border — hate speech calling for genocide against Indian Muslims made a short distance from Parliament — the rape of a Dalit girl and of course, the farm sector and ongoing protests.
The Opposition says it had to stand firm on Pegasus and make a point as the system is now rigged against it even in the manner in which Lok Sabha TV now no longer broadcasts its actions within the House. The PM, meanwhile, has said that he has never seen such a ‘negative mindset’ in Parliament. Either way, we the people, are the losers.
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