There are a number of things that go into the making of a Westminster-style Parliamentary democracy but none more critical than the principle of an executive being responsible to the elected legislature. A government only hold power till it has the confidence of the legislature. But even when it sits in office, it is constantly kept on its toes by legislators. From voting on bills to asking ministers questions, the legislative check on the executive is the lifeblood of any parliamentary democracy.
However, in the world’s largest Parliamentary democracy, this principle is now teetering dangerously on the edge.
Take the monsoon session of India’s Parliament that ended on Wednesday. It was a critical session, the first after the Covid-19 pandemic hit India. Moreover, the country is getting buffeted by many grave problems: from India’s ever-rising coronavirus graph to an unprecedented economic crash to the Chinese army intruding into parts of Ladakh. More than ever, India was looking to its elected representatives to discuss its issues and hold the government responsible for any lapses.
However, Parliament found itself hobbled even before it convened. The Modi government decided that the monsoon session of Parliament would be held without Question Hour, the segment of a parliament session during which MPs are allowed to ask questions of the government.
The government claimed that Question Hour requires the presence of a large number of bureaucrats in Parliament to brief ministers and would thus violate Covid-19 norms. Considering that hundreds of MPs were meeting anyway, it was an unusual excuse. It was even more unusual given that this is 2020 and so much of government work around the world is already being done via technology.
Notably, the United Kingdom – from where India borrowed the concept of Question Hour – was able to conduct the practice right through the pandemic.
Bulldozing the House
This wasn’t all. On September 16, the speaker of the Lok Sabha disallowed a debate on the India-China border situation. This came after Prime Minister Narendra Modi began the session urging Parliament to “speak in one voice” to support India’s soldiers – a not-so-subtle message for the Opposition to support the government.
It is by now clear that the Modi government has much to answer about its mishandling of the Chinese incursions. The administration has bungled something as simple as maintaining a consistent position on the exact nature of the Chinese aggression. In such a situation, not allowing MPs to question the government not only devalued Parliament, it hurt India’s national security by letting the government off the hook.
The session was to see more lows as a vote in the Rajya Sabha on two critical bills making vast changes in Indian agriculture were rushed through the House using a dubious voice vote – a mechanism where the presiding officer interprets support for a bill based on whether people shouted “yes” louder or “no”. Since the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party does not have a majority in the upper house, whether this vote was truly supported by the majority of the members of the House will remain a mystery.
The voice vote didn’t end matters. Later, eight Opposition MPs were suspended, leading to the Opposition boycotting the Rajya Sabha. The government used this as the opportunity to quickly pass as many as 15 bills in the Rajya Sabha over Tuesday and Wednesday – a run rate of a bill every half hour. It was the legislative equivalent of a football match with only one side allowed on the field.
The statistics from this session tell a troubling story of legislative decline. According to data by PRS Legislative Research, 17 bills were introduced and passed in this session without a single bill being referred to a committee for careful legislative scrutiny.
On average, Lok Sabha discussed a bill for one-and-a-half hours, and Rajya Sabha discussed a bill for just about an hour before passing it. Since no scrutiny is possible in such a short time for laws that affect 1.3 billion people, this effectively means a complete surrender of the legislature’s power to legislate.
While this session might represent a troubling low, this trend is not new. India’ state legislatures have been for some time glorified rubber stamps for their governments. Most meet for the minimum time allowed by the Constitution, rush through bills and are then asked to pack up and go home. In this idea of treating the assembly as a clearing house, there is obviously no place for the concept of a parliamentary opposition. In 2012, for example, in one fell swoop, the Gujarat Assembly suspended every Congress MLA in the House.
How intractable the issue of legislative checks is can be gauged from the fact that large numbers of Indians consider the mechanics of legislature – where workings are messy but concomitantly relatively transparent – to be irritants to “good governance”. In 1985, for example, Rajiv Gandhi had widespread support when he forced elected MPs to vote as per the diktats of unelected high commands by passing the anti-defection law.
In theory it was meant to end political corruption – but it certainly did not. But it did severely weaken the ability of the legislature to check the executive.
In the Lok Sabha, for example, if the Modi government introduces a bill, BJP MPs are instructed by law to vote for the bill as per the instructions of the BJP whip – which is controlled by Narendra Modi. Since the BJP has a plurality of MPs in the House, it means by definition, the Modi government can – by law – never be defeated in the Lower House.