There is obviously nothing more important to the working of a democracy than the act of voting. By corollary, laws and legislation that deal with elections are critical. However, that is hardly the idea one would get looking at the cavalier way India’s Parliament just passed a wide-ranging amendment to the way its voter rolls are constituted.

On Monday, the Union government introduced the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha. This sought to link Aadhaar – India’s contentious biometric identification database – to the voter rolls. The Election Commission can now ask new voters for their Aadhaar details. It can also demand that existing voters produce their biometric details.

A major change

Contrary to the government’s claims, as reported, Aadhaar linking is not voluntary. Worse, this comes after initial attempts at Aadhaar-Voter ID linking have led to disaster, with widespread deletions. To add to this are concerns that data privacy is not guaranteed given that India still does not have a data protection law.

Clearly then, Aadhaar-Voter ID linking was a major step that required widespread public consultation and minute legislative scrutiny. However, just the opposite happened with this critical bill. On Monday, it was introduced in the Lok Sabha and immediately put to a vote.

Opposition demands that it be sent to a standing committee for study were refused. Eventually, the bill was passed without even a proper vote, that is a division, which involves the counting of heads in favour of or against a bill. Instead, the speaker chose the device of a voice vote which – believe it or not – sees bills being passed or rejected based on which side can shout louder.

MPs protest in Lok Sabha on Monday

Rush hour

A similarly hurried approach was adopted the next day in the Rajya Sabha. The chairperson refused Opposition demands for a division, stating that the House was not in order. But then paradoxically managed to – in that very state of disorder – conduct a voice vote and declare the bill passed.

The use of the device of the voice vote in the Rajya Sabha is doubly suspect given that the BJP does not have a majority in the House and 12 Opposition MPs had been controversially suspended earlier in the session. Considering how critical the current legislation is to the performance of Indian democracy, it is clear that the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman Harivansh erred greatly in not acceding to demands for a division. A bill claiming to protect the act of voting should, at the very least, have been passed through the device of a proper, transparent vote.

Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha Harivansh conducts proceedings in the Upper House on Tuesday.

‘Parliamentary’ democracy

The decline of the legislative arm is not new in India. State legislatures have been rubber stamps for decades now. Much the same dynamic has now come to the Union legislature, with the government treating Parliament as a rubber stamp, reversing what should be the norm: the (directly-elected) legislature keeping a check on the executive.

In the previous Monsoon session, the Modi government introduced as many as 15 new bills and got them all passed without any scrutiny by committee – or for that matter any debate. Data from the Delhi-based think tank PRS Legislative Research showed that the Lok Sabha, on an average, took around 34 minutes to pass a bill. In the Rajya Sabha, it was similarly ridiculous: 46 minutes. The Lok Sabha, for example, took as little as five minutes to pass the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which puts in place an insolvency resolution mechanism for micro, small and medium enterprises.

Matters have reached a peak where even the media attention afforded by critical legislation does not force governments to stick to democratic norms in Parliament. In 2020, a dubious voice vote was used to pass the critical farm bills, which tried to drastically change India’s largest industry, agriculture. Now the same disquieting methods have been used to change voting laws themselves.

India is a Parliamentary democracy. But what does that phrase mean if Parliament itself does not function?