Monsoon session: A sad reflection on the state of Indian democracy

The monsoon session of Parliament, held amid concerns about pandemic-related social distancing, was shorter than usual as it ended eight days before schedule, thanks to a sudden cluster of Covid-19 cases. But the session was nevertheless, in numerical terms, remarkably productive. According to the non-profit PRS Legislative Research, which tracks the activity of Parliament, the Lok Sabha worked for almost 50 per cent more than it was scheduled to, while on average it works less than is scheduled. The lower house, in fact, sat beyond midnight twice in succession. About 60 per cent of that time was spent on debate related to specific legislation. This added up to a “productivity” of 167 per cent for the Lok Sabha, while the Rajya Sabha — where the majority for government Bills is not always certain — had a count of about 100 per cent. Just over three hours of the upper house’s time was lost because of disruptions. A working Parliament is, of course, a positive for governance.

However, it is doubtful whether these numbers tell the real story, or that Parliament, as was seen during the monsoon session, can truly be said to have “worked”. First of all, the accountability and supervision of the actions of the executive were severely eroded, thanks to the move to cancel Question Hour. The questioning of the executive by the legislators is central to any democratic form of government, and particularly crucial when a single party has a majority and so there is minimal discussion within the ruling alliance. The government cannot make this a habit. The ruling party’s own legislators will begin to feel alienated. The act of putting questions to ministers about their ministries’ actions is one of the basic functions of Parliament.

As bad for precedent and for the democratic legitimacy of law is how legislation has been passed in this session. Opposition members were suspended; boycotts took place; and Bills were passed almost without debate. On the day before the session was cut short, the Rajya Sabha passed seven Bills in less than four hours. In the past when Bills have been passed without sufficient discussion, the country has subsequently paid a dear price for the lack of scrutiny. In fact, no Bills were sent to a committee in this session of Parliament. This is in spite of the fact that several of these Bills were deeply controversial, including the Labour Codes, the agricultural reform Bills, and the amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. Seventeen of the 20 new Bills introduced were, in fact, passed within this session itself.

Sadly, this does not reflect a successful attempt to build a consensus as much as a successful attempt to side-step parliamentary debate and scrutiny. As an empty House sat and passed Bill after Bill in the absence of the Opposition, it was a sad reflection on the state of Indian democracy. Such scenes have been visible before at the state level in particular. But it is an even greater danger to minimise scrutiny at the national level. Those members of the Opposition responsible for disruption deserve censure, and should not have behaved the way they did. But it is always the duty of the government side to ensure the full functioning of the legislature, and on that account it failed, whatever the numbers may say.


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