The coronavirus pandemic, hunger or poverty cannot be adjourned. But Parliament and courts of law can be. The judicial courts get criticised for adjournments of cases that extend beyond months and years, while Parliament is known for several adjournments in a single day for one or more hours until proceedings get postponed to the next day. In both estates, adjournments have become the order of the day.
Before the current series of adjournments, the ongoing session of Parliament began with the ‘suspension’ of twelve members. The punishment by the Vice-Chairman came like a bolt from the blue, provoking the Opposition parties. The Opposition routinely faulted the ‘suspensions’ as arbitrary and said it denied the punished members from presenting their versions. It is allegedly due to their behaviour on 11 August, during the Monsoon Session, that they were suspended under Rule 256 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha). Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi introduced the motion, which got passed by a voice vote in the Rajya Sabha. The Vice Chairman’s opening address was about this too. He said “the bitter and unpleasant experiences” of the last Monsoon Session “still continue to haunt most of us”.
The decision to suspend the members suffers from two primary defects. One—it is the House that has the power to punish and not the authority in the chair. Hence, the House has to discuss the matter thoroughly before it can render any punishment. Two—the principles of natural justice have to apply to any situation. Nobody has the authority to punish another without hearing the “accused”. Shiv Sena Member of Parliament Priyanka Chaturvedi, one of the suspended members of the House, raised the point that male marshals had jostled with women Members of Parliament, a fact recorded in the CCTV cameras. She condemned the order of suspension without watching this footage and hearing her version.
The Opposition parties also contended that “outsiders” who were not part of Parliament security were brought into the House to “manhandle” them, including the women members, during the passage of the General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Amendment Bill, 2021. They have described what happened in the House during the Monsoon Session as “unprecedented” and akin to “martial law” imposed in Parliament.
The Ordinance route of making laws gets criticised because it is not preceded by any debate or consultation. But when a bill passes without discussion in the House, it is worse than ordinances because it prevents Parliamentarians from scrutinising the laws passed in their name. It is unthinkably unethical. The government withdrew the three farm laws through a bill that was passed without a “debate”. It does not mean the Opposition supports the anti-farmer laws. It is against the very purpose of the existence of Parliament to pass laws without discussion or debate.
It is not about how many bills you pass in a session but how they were cleared—the latter issue is even more important. Interestingly, the Opposition raised the slogan of “Jai Kisan” to counter the slogan of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, as the Leader of the House entered.
The Treasury benches contended that when the government is withdrawing the acts, what was left to discuss in them? The simple answer to this question is: It will be known if they are heard. Parliament members have the right to be heard by the House, whether it is a matter of suspensions, withdrawal of bills or adjournment of the session. AIMIM Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi wanted to say that this withdrawal was “in fear of political losses” in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. He also wanted the Centre to repeal the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, alleging it to be violative of Article 14 of the Constitution. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi inferred that the government was scared of holding a discussion.
The observations of the Presiding Officer in 2013 and 2021 are substantially similar and extremely insightful, especially when one considers how over the last three years, disruptions have dogged the functioning of Parliament. Disruptions are a common feature for the sessions in both these years. According to Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, the House lost about 70% of the valuable time due to disruptions. The opinion of the Chairpersons of the Rajya Sabha before 2013 and in 2021 is almost the same. The only difference is, earlier, the Chairman would complain about BJP members, then in the Opposition benches, while the present Chairman is commenting on the Congress party, which is in Opposition today. So, disruptions and wasting the time of the House have become common factors: when in the position of power, members want the House not to get disrupted, but when in Opposition, disruption becomes their only agenda.
In 2010, the Lok Sabha worked for 57% of its scheduled time, as the entire Winter Session was disrupted due to demands for forming a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to inquire into the 2G spectrum allocation issue. In 2021, one will find the same demand relating to different policies of the current government, such as the Goods and Services Tax bill, demonetisation, the Rafael deal, reading down of Article 370, the CAA and now, the farm laws.
A steady rise in disruptions in Parliament impairs its ability to perform its constitutional duties effectively. It is the mandate of Parliament to make the government accountable by scrutinising the working of ministries. It has to make laws to improve governance and the legal system. It must discuss and pass the Budget to keep the nation on a strong economic foundation. It has to reflect the aspirations of a billion people. With routine disruptions, Members of Parliament will not be able to demand answers to critical questions or discuss vital issues with supplementary queries.
No legislation gets debated. The treasury benches are in an advantageous situation. They can provoke the Opposition anytime to disrupt and push laws through without debate in the ensuing pandemonium. Then they can happily blame the Opposition for disruptions and benefit from going through with laws like the CAA and the Farm Acts. When the Opposition walked out on the farm bills, the ruling party managed to pass the revised labour codes. Walkouts or talk-outs or disruptions are no longer the strategies of Opposition parties but the chakravyuh created by rulers.
Parliament is supreme in the United Kingdom. But in India, the Constitution is the suprema lex that every estate has to follow. Being a House for democratic discussions, the debate therein cannot be denied. The Opposition and Treasury benches have a collective responsibility to respect the most expensive hours of House, with discussions worthy of debate.
In the British Parliament, every week, some days of each parliamentary session are earmarked for the Opposition parties to determine the agenda of the day’s discussions. Such a system is unimaginable in India. The House of Commons sits for about 150 days a year, with an average sitting lasting seven-and-a-half hours. Our Parliament meets for an average of 70 days a year, and the rules provide that Lok Sabha would meet for six hours and the Rajya Sabha for five hours. With 70% of sessions a wash-out by protests and disruptions, our parliamentary democracy suffers severely, and our Members of Parliament fail to reflect the people’s choices or voice. It appears we are neither a Parliamentary democracy like the British system nor a presidential form of government as in the United States. Sans debate, the Executive usurps the function of the Legislature. There is no name in political science for this kind of governance.
Professor M Sridhar Acharyulu is a former Central Information Commissioner and teaches Constitutional Law at Mahindra University. The views are personal.