Senior BJP ministers insist there are sufficient provisions in the Constitution which allow the government to “function without Parliament”, a suggestion which has sent alarm bells ringing since it reinforces the widely-held perception that the ruling alliance is determined to undermine institutions.
It is not clear if the government will actually carry out the threat, but this view was being openly aired by BJP ministers on Wednesday in informal discussions with media persons.
The ruling alliance is facing flak for not reaching out to the protesting opposition parties to end the current stalemate in Parliament. The suspension of 25 Congress MPs by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan has escalated the confrontation between the two sides.
A senior minister on Wednesday maintained that he had studied the Constitution closely in this context and found that the government can push through its legislative agenda by converting key bills into money bills so that they don’t get blocked in the Rajya Sabha where the NDA is presently in a minority. Most bills have a financial implication. Other policy decisions, he said, could be taken by issuing executive orders.
Undermining Rajya Sabha
The government had held out a similar warning to the opposition earlier not to block its bills, failing which it would get them passed by calling a joint session of Parliament.
A money bill does not require the assent of the Upper House. According to Constitutional provisions, a money bill is deemed to be passed if the Rajya Sabha fails to return it within 14 days. The Rajya Sabha can debate a money bill but cannot move any amendments on it.
Finding that its bills were constantly being obstructed in the Rajya Sabha, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had brought the Black Money (Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets) and Imposition of Tax Bill, 2015, as a money bill during the budget session of Parliament. He had similarly sought to amend the RBI Act and the SEBI Act by clubbing them with the Finance Bill.
The Modi government’s increasing move to resort to the use of money bills had come in for sharp attack from the opposition in the last session. The ruling alliance was also in the firing line for not sending bills to Parliamentary standing committees for scrutiny. An angry opposition had then confronted the government on this issue but was told, in response, that rules clearly lay down that the Speaker has the final say in deciding if a piece of legislation qualifies as a money bill.
The debate was triggered by Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP KN Balagopal’s letter in which he pointed out that the government was undermining the Rajya Sabha by passing off any legislation relating to finance as a money bill.
“The Finance Bill returned by the Rajya Sabha last week carries certain amendments to some independent Acts passed in earlier years,” the letter said. “These Acts would have been amended through an independent process other than including them in the Finance Bill.”
Tinkering with Constitution
This was countered by Jaitley who had argued that the Constitution provided for this remedy. Not just this, but the finance minister sent the proverbial cat among the pigeons when he went on to question the powers of the Upper House to block bills which had been cleared by the Lok Sabha.
“It’s a serious question in a Parliamentary democracy, wherein bill after bill, the wisdom of directly elected house is questioned by the indirectly elected house,” he remarked.
Even then, his statement was viewed with suspicion by the opposition which was convinced that the NDA government wanted to undermine the powers of the Upper House.
Reacting to the government’s suggestion that it meant to bypass Parliament in future, senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said he was not surprised. “This has always been the mindset of the BJP and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh]… they do not believe in the Constitution,” he said. Singh maintained that the opposition parties should hit the streets to expose the government’s move to destroy Parliamentary democracy.
This is not the first time that the BJP has attempted to play around with the Constitution. When Atal Behari Vajpayee was prime minister, his government had set up a National Commission, headed by former Chief Justice MN Venkatachaliah, to review the working of the Constitution.
Then President KR Narayanan had disagreed with this move and even warned against tinkering with the Constitution, forcing the government to clarify that the proposed Commission would not “interfere with the basic features of the Constitution”. Despite this clarification, there were doubts that the Commission was meant to study if a Presidential form of government would be a better option as compared to a Parliamentary system. However, nothing much came of this exercise.
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