Indian MPs don’t let Parliament work, and thus hurt democracy
The second half of the Indian Parliament’s budget session resumed on Monday and was adjourned in minutes. The Speakers of both houses of Parliament – lower Lok Sabha and upper Rajya Sabha – tried to calm the raging, screaming and sloganeering by members but failed.
The development did not exactly come as a surprise to anyone, as this has become a routine exercise in the past few years, even before the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014. It is almost as if the lawmakers, regardless of which political party they belong do, have collectively decided that the only way to counter the government in power and to put forward their demands is to disrupt Parliament and not allow it to work.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did it when it was in the opposition, the Indian National Congress is doing the same now that it is in the opposition, and so are other regional parties.
The disruption on Monday had two factions. One group was demanding an answer from the government for letting the multibillion-dollar Punjab National Bank scam happen under its watch. The other was demanding special status for the state of Andhra Pradesh.
Lawmakers from both groups seem to have come to the conclusion that not letting Parliament carry out its legislative function is the way to deal with both issues. But is it?
In 2017, the Indian Parliament had a total of 57 sittings, a reduction from 70 days in 2016 and 72 days in 2015. In the last 10 years, there have been an average of 73 sittings annually. When compared with the United Kingdom’s House of Commons and the United States’ House of Representatives, which respectively clocked 150 days and 140 days annually, the Indian Parliament has a woefully low number of sittings.
What’s more worrying is that in the 1950s and 1960s, this same Parliament used to sit for 120 days annually. Leaving disruptions aside, the desirability and intent behind even having sessions has seen a downward spiral over successive governments.
Why does this happen? Why do India’s elected representatives believe that disrupting Parliament is effective? There are a few reasons one can think of to explain this phenomenon, the major one being lack of responsiveness of the government.
Opposition members are often heard complaining about how the central government is not listening to their demands, let alone fulfilling them. This is a major gripe held by regional parties that consistently speak of more centralization of power in New Delhi while usurping it from state governments.
The current agitation regarding special status for Andhra Pradesh is one such instance where the regional political outfits feel cheated. Biju Janata Dal, a regional party from the state of Odisha, has also been demanding that the central government put a stop to the construction of the Polavaram Dam on the Mahanadi River but has not had any success.
Every once in a while, even if rarely, even as an otherwise reasonable party, they troop to the well and demand action. Or just walk out of the house in protest.
Unlike regional political parties, which have focused issues related to their states, national parties like the Indian National Congress (INC) have a whole host of separate issues they want the central government to give answers for. From an allegedly shady defense deal to the latest multibillion-dollar banking scam, being the principal opposition party, Congress is demanding answers and accountability.
But the question still remains: Would it be more effective if these issues were discussed in Parliament rather than shouting about them and forcing the houses to adjourn?
Previously, the INC has disrupted the house over communal incidents such as mob lynching in Uttar Pradesh and Dalit atrocities in Gujarat, demanding that the Modi government respond and act. Even if the government does not give a satisfactory response or act on the demands, disruptions do manage to bring focus on these issues at a national scale.
But the question still remains: Would it be more effective if these issues were discussed in Parliament rather than shouting about them and forcing the houses to adjourn? This situation is a result of the very nature of what Parliament is supposed to do: Discuss, debate and decide. Through the years, there has been less discussion, less debate and more forceful decisions.
The BJP has time and again bulldozed legislation through Parliament since it came to power in 2014, the Aadhaar Act being one instance. Before 2014, the INC-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was sometimes guilty of doing the same, with disastrous consequences.
In fact, the current agitation led by MPs from Andhra Pradesh is partially a result of the UPA bulldozing through a law that split the state in two, but did not fulfill the promises that were made during that time. The current NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government also doesn’t seem eager to fulfill the demands.
It’s almost as if Parliament is only allowed to function when the central government wants to make a decision and push a law through. Disruptions are often used as an excuse by the ruling party to push bills through, all the while denying debate and discussion. The reduction in the number of sittings just adds to the hurry. The idea is to decide quickly, not deliberate consistently.
The public, on the other hand, is palpably getting tired of watching Parliament turn into a forum where elected representatives just sloganeer and shout. Questions like “What is the point of paying them? Is this why we elected them? Why do they even get salaries?” are thrown about, pointing toward this growing frustration.
All these are dangerous signs that the people of India are losing faith in their Parliament, especially since nothing seems to have changed since the change in government in 2014. The situation is getting worse, and it’s profoundly damaging Indian democracy.