Do Indians care who is responsible for stalling Parliament? The just-concluded Budget Session has been the least productive for both Houses since 2000, with the Lok Sabha working for just 21% of its scheduled time. This is actually far lower than the 85% productivity the lower House has managed over the course of the last four years, yet it does not feel like a remarkable departure from the norm. This is because the sight of Members of Parliament marching into the well of either House to protest something followed by adjournment is so routine that any actual work comes as a surprise. It also explains why the word ruckus is so commonplace in Indian newspapers.

Despite the general sense of cynicism that comes with people’s expectations of their representatives, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah are going to spend Thursday trying to convince the public otherwise. Modi and Shah are set to lead a day-long fast, with other BJP MPs expected to follow suit.

Whose fault?

The aim of this symbolic protest? “To expose the Congress for its undemocratic style of functioning, and pursuing divisive politics and anti-development agenda,” said a party statement. An advisory from the party told all MPs to observe the fast and tell the public how the Congress has “murdered democracy by stalling Parliament”.

Was the Congress responsible for stalling Parliament? The answer to this must include an explanation of why there was an 18-year-low in Parliamentary productivity. It was not due to a scam, as with the stalling of Parliament by the BJP in the year after the 2G spectrum corruption case emerged. It was also not due to any controversial legislation, like the Land Acquisition Amendments at the start of Modi’s tenure.

Instead, the most prominent action that took place in Parliament, following the passage of the Budget, were the several notices of motions of no-confidence moved against the government. The lack of order meant that these motions never even made it to the floor, allowing the BJP to avoid even a perfunctory discussion on its record over the last four years. The BJP’s numbers in the Lok Sabha meant that there would never have been any danger to the government from the motion, yet even a debate on the matter might have led to uncomfortable scenes and headlines.

No confidence

So, significantly, despite multiple parties – including the Congress – asking for the BJP to prove its majority on the floor of the Lok Sabha, a democratic exercise that affirms the people’s faith in the government of the day, Parliament was ultimately adjourned without taking up those motions. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha complained constantly that there was not enough order for her to count the 50 MPs who were needed to allow a no-confidence motion be taken up.

Early on, the Congress among other Opposition parties was disrupting the session, demanding various things like a debate on the Punjab National Bank scam. The loudest protests came from the Andhra Pradesh parties, demanding special status for their state. But most of these had quieted down by the end of the Session, with a number of those parties having moved the no-confidence motions. Yet the Speaker continued to adjourn the Lok Sabha.

The ostensible reason given was the constant disruption, towards the end, by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which was protesting the government’s failure to implement a Supreme Court order requiring the constitution of a Cauvery Water Management Board. But it seemed a given that the AIADMK protest was being used as a fig-leaf to prevent the Lok Sabha from functioning and allow the BJP get away without a debate on the no-confidence motions.

Fasting sample

That objective having been accomplished, the BJP now wants to put a cherry on the top of its successful tactic: First ensure Parliament doesn’t actually function, then try to convince the public that the disruption was the Congress’ fault. Earlier, the government announced that none of the MPs of the ruling National Democratic Alliance would claim their salaries for the 23 days of the Session, also to protest the washout, though that move was criticised by the non-BJP parties.

Now Modi and Shah are hoping to drive the point home with a fast, one that they hope will be seen as being more credibly conducted than the Congress’ fast on April 9 against violence. That symbolic protest by the Congress was seemingly derailed by pictures of the party’s MPs enjoying a hefty breakfast in the morning, and later by the sight of riot-tainted ministers being present at the sight.

To avoid the same embarrassment, the BJP has put out guidelines, telling its MPs to “avoid food at restaurants and places frequented by people” and not to “click selfies while having food or allow any one to click pictures”.

Institutional malaise

Will one fast succeed where the other floundered? It is unlikely, since the aforementioned cynicism about Parliament functioning means this is not an emotive issue for the public at large. Moreover, conventional wisdom seems to suggest this Session is not going to be a one-off: With political parties moving into election mode, the chances of any significant business being transacted in Parliament seem even less likely.

This says much about how parties see Parliament, as well as the image of the institution among the public at large. Though the 16th Lok Sabha since 2014 has been more productive than the one that came before it, the BJP – despite talk of cooperative federalism and ending High Command politics – has continued to undermine the institution, most significantly through its use of money bills.

Legislative decisions continued to be made outside the House and simply hurried through from within. Few expect it to be a genuine forum for debate. The anti-defection law and other procedural hurdles may set the stage for this state of affairs, but they are worsened by political attitudes towards the body. Parliamentarians would do well to look carefully at this matter for the long-term health of what is meant to be an institution that is representative of the Indian public. The answer to the question of whether Indians care about who was responsible for stalling Parliament might in fact be a more disturbing question: Do Indians care about Parliament?