Explain this combination of claims from the Centre over the past few days:
India has done “very well” at containing Covid-19, far better than many other nations. The Delhi government in particular was congratulated for its efforts. Meanwhile, the invite has gone out to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to be the chief guest at the 2021 Republic Day parade, set to take place in little more than a month.
Yet, the Centre claims that conditions are not safe enough for Parliament to hold its Winter Session, even as tens of thousands are out on the streets protesting three laws that were passed under questionable circumstances in September. And this, despite the fact that many of those countries that India claims to have done better than in containing Covid-19 have all found ways to hold sessions of their Parliament or equivalent institutions.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Prahlad Joshi’s explanation was that winter is when the Covid-19 threat will be the worst, even though according to official numbers the pandemic peaked nationally in September and its November spike in Delhi is well behind us. Moreover, despite blaming winter, the government has signaled that it is nevertheless willing to hold the Budget Session of Parliament in January – not exactly a warm-weather month.
There is no doubt that Covid-19 remains a significant threat, both to the wider public and to India’s politicians and public representatives who have been ravaged by the disease. Moreover, the arrangements made over August and September to prevent the virus from spreading during the Monsoon Session of Parliament did not seem adequate, forcing it to be adjourned ahead of time.
Yet if the pandemic threat alone was the issue, then there would be no question of holding a Session in January. Or of touting the fact, as Joshi did, that the Monsoon Session was remarkably efficient, especially since efficiency often implies a lack of adequate scrutiny of legislation and debate.
Instead, the government’s determination to cancel the Winter Session and go straight to the Budget one is a barely disguised effort to avoid discussion of the three agricultural laws that were passed in chaotic circumstances without a proper counting of the votes in September. The laws have since prompted tens of thousands of farmers to take to the streets, marching down to the borders of Delhi to demand a repeal of the laws.
The Centre has offered a number of a major concessions to the protesting farmers, including major changes to the laws themselves, though these have not been accepted. Where better to discuss such matters than Parliament, where the laws should have been put through committee scrutiny as demanded by the Opposition in the first place?
The government’s hope is that it is able to somehow tide over or tamp down the ongoing protests by January, and lean on the convention that the Budget session focuses primarily on the Budget, skipping over important issues like the farmer agitation, the government’s plans for vaccine rollout, news that malnutrition in India actually got worse over between 2015 and 2019 and the continued Chinese occupation of territory in Eastern Ladakh.
The irony is that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Parliament has mostly been used as a rubber stamp for executive actions that are not constrained by scrutiny, consultation or oversight. In that sense, the government ought to have little to worry about in holding the Winter Session, while at least carrying on the pretence of giving India’s legislative body its due.
By dispensing with even this pretence, out of fear that of a few days with bad headlines or tough questioning, the Modi government makes it clear what it thinks of the Indian Parliament and its relevance to the Republic.