Opinion

No debate, please: The devaluation of Parliament is an alarming sign for Indian democracy

Why are directly elected legislatures subservient to party high commands or ordered about by the executive?

After his thumping win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi entered Parliament with fanfare – kneeling down and touching his forehead on the stairs of the building designed by British architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. After entering Parliament, he described it as a “temple of democracy”.

Unfortunately, these grand gestures have been belied by the Modi government’s actions in office.

Most recently, following the demonetisation policy announced last month, Opposition parties have demanded that the prime minister speak in a debate on demonetisation in Parliament, but Modi has not done so even though he has attacked the Opposition elsewhere for opposing demonetisation.

Even more alarming is the Bharatiya Janata Party showing little regard for parliamentary rules and procedure.

On Tuesday, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan flatly refused to let a crucial taxation bill be discussed in the Lok Sabha.

The fact that legislation is now simply being bulldozed through Parliament by the Union government is one in a long line of warning signs where state and Union legislatures have been devalued, even as the executive and judicial arms of the state have got stronger. Given that the legislature is the only arm of the State that is directly elected by the Indian peoples, this is an alarming development for democracy.

‘No debate, this is the Lok Sabha’

As part of the demonetisation drive, the Union government on Tuesday introduced the Taxation Laws (2nd Amendment) Bill, 2016, in the Lok Sabha. This Bill sought to impose a cess on any so-called black money deposited in banks following the withdrawal of high-value currency notes last month.

While this move was an important part of the government’s narrative of being seen as tough on black money, the passage of the bill completely ignored set Parliamentary conventions.

For one, the government did not put the bill in the list of business the day before, and the Speaker simply disallowed some Opposition MPs from moving amendments to the Bill.

Mahajan, who has been a long-time BJP parliamentarian, was severely criticised by the Opposition for riding roughshod over Parliamentary convention. In the end, the bill was passed by a voice vote.

Parliament’s job is to legislate. The way the Income-Tax Act was amended on Tuesday, however, put paid to that notion. Not only was the bill sprung upon the Lok Sabha, making sure no parliamentarian even had the chance to read it, even a simple discussion was disallowed. Even in circumstances so controversial, there was no division and the peoples of India will have to trust the Speaker on her call.

An old trend

As shameful as the events of Tuesday were, few watchers of Indian politics would be genuinely surprised by them.

The devaluation of the legislative branch of the State has been a consistent trend in Indian politics. In the states, summarily passing bills without debate or discussion is so common as to be almost mundane, eliciting no outrage or anger.

In 2014, the policy think-tank PRS pointed out that in the 12th Gujarat Assembly, which ran from 2007 to 2012 with Narendra Modi as chief minister, “over 90% of all bills were passed on the same day as they were introduced”.

Given that the Gujarat Assembly was not used for any debate, it barely convened, sitting for on average of 31 days every year between 2007 and 2012. Even when it did convene, the Speaker often suspended Opposition legislators at will.

In one instance in 2012, every single Congress MLA was evicted from the House for the entire session. In spite of this severe devaluing of the legislature, Modi’s record as a democrat was rarely bought up when he ran for prime minister in 2014, showing how little relevance the issue has politically in India.

Naturally, given that this elicits little outrage, the Congress has done its fair share to devalue legislatures at the Union level as well. In February, 2014, the television broadcast of the Lok Sabha was cut off as the House voted to carve out the state of Telangana from undivided Andhra Pradesh.

Even though the bill was supported by the Opposition BJP, and therefore, the government clearly had the numbers on its side, the Congress was embarrassed by the Opposition from coastal Andhra MPs, who were against the partition of their state.

Defection and democracy

In 1985, it was the Congress under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that struck at the heart of Parliament’s power, passing the Anti-Defection Law, which placed curbs on how individual parliamentarians could vote. The Anti-Defection Law binds legislators to vote as per the orders of their party whip. The law, therefore, stands in direct opposition to representative democracy, where as representatives of their constituency, legislators are supposed to channel its voice in legislatures. Instead, the law forces to them to listen to party high commands, which are mostly constituted without a semblance of democracy.

As commentator Mohan Guruswamy put it, the Anti-Defection Law is “an attempt to institutionalise the illegitimate power of undemocratically installed party leaderships over the elected representatives of the people”.

By severely diluting the legislative check on the executive, the Anti-Defection Law is a dangerous portent for Indian democracy.

Take the 2013 vote in the British Parliament on Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to bomb Syria. Thirty MPs from Cameron’s own party, unsure of the effect the bombing would have, voted against the proposal, leading to the government’s motion being defeated. As a result, British bombers are limited to Iraq and do not fly over Syria. Such a Parliamentary check on the power of the executive is, by law, impossible in India today given that the 282 BJP MPs in the Lok Sabha – a simple majority – have to obey the BJP high command’s orders while voting.

The devaluation of the legislature and the ascendancy of the executive is not limited to India.

In the US, till 1901, when Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt took office as President, the United States federal government’s most important arm was its legislature. However, the emergence of mass media allowed the president to directly connect with the country as a whole, fashioning the US federal executive we see today.

India’s journey, however, is even more worrisome given that in the Westminster system of government, which the country follows, the legislatures are the only arm of government that are elected directly.

Unlike the president and governors in the United States, India’s state and Union executives are not elected directly. That the legislatures, the Indian state’s only directly-elected arm, are losing power to the executive or even the judiciary – which has increasingly appropriated the law-making function – is a troubling sign for Indian democracy.

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