Surrounded by gaggles of people, Narendra Modi paused on the steps of the Parliament, bowed before it and touched the first step with his head. No prime minister had made the kind of faithful gesture that Modi did on his maiden visit to the Parliament on May 20, 2014 – it was ostensibly a public display of his respect for the highest representative body even before he assumed the office of the prime minister.

His government since then has made many shows of its regard for the apex legislature of our nation. It relentlessly talked about minimum government and maximum governance, started celebrating Constitution Day on November 26, and attempted to appropriate BR Ambedkar, the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly. While laying the foundation stone of the new Parliament building last December, Modi eloquently talked about India’s vibrant democracy and hoped that India would be hailed as the mother of democracy.

It is paradoxical, then, that the government which claims to have such respect for the Parliament, the Constitution, democracy and Ambedkar took the unprecedented decision to dispense with the winter session of Parliament in view of the Covid-19 pandemic. What makes it stranger is that their anxiety about the virus has not stopped leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party, including Modi, from addressing political rallies attended by thousands of people.

Had the winter session been held as per convention, the Parliament would have bustled with activity. Legislation would have been debated and MPs would have used parliamentary devices to hold the government to account. For certain, there might have been disruptions by the Opposition and some government allies to raise pressing issues – such as the unprecedented agitation by farmers against three farm laws passed without consulting the farmers and without following rules and Constitution – but that would have just been democracy at play.

Farmers protest against the central government’s agricultural reforms at Tikri border in New Delhi. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP.

Broken Convention

Article 85 of the Constitution does not provide for three sessions of the Parliament (budget, autumn and winter). It only prescribes that the President of India shall from time to time summon each House of Parliament and “...six months shall not intervene between its last sitting in one Session and the date appointed for its first sitting in the next Session”.

It is instructive to note that when the Constituent Assembly was discussing Article 85 (Article 69 in the draft Constitution) on May 18, 1949, a distinguished member of the House, HV Kamath, had suggested that the Constitution should provide for three sessions – a budget session, a session in the middle of the year from July or August, and an autumn or winter session. Years later, three parliamentary sessions were recommended on April 24, 1955, by the General Purposes Committee of Lok Sabha and the idea was accepted by the government. Accordingly, since then, the Parliament has been convened for three sessions every year – until the Modi government broke the robust 65-year-old convention by cancelling the winter session in 2020.

This anomalous action has proven true the apprehensions of some of the Constituent Assembly members. One of them, Professor T Shah, while participating in a discussion, had moved an amendment suggesting that the Parliament should sit throughout the year so that no government could interfere in its functioning. Another member, RK Sidhwa, sounded out near-oracular words of caution: “...generally Ministers are reluctant to face the legislature and, therefore, they avoid calling the sessions of the legislature”.

Ambedkar’s Fears

The decision not to convene the Parliament session in 2020 is evocative of the British rulers in 1935, when they, according to Ambedkar, shunned the legislature, except for convening it for the purpose of getting the budget and its financial proposals approved. He added that “the legislature was summoned primarily for the purpose of collecting revenue… the executive was not very keen to meet the legislature in order to permit the legislature either to question the day-to-day administration by exercising its right of interpellation or of moving legislation to remove social grievances”. He described the situation as a “travesty of democracy” and added, “I do not think any executive would hereafter be capable of showing this kind of callous conduct towards the legislature”. The Modi regime proved him wrong 71 years after he spoke those words.

When some members of the Constituent Assembly wanted frequent sessions of the Parliament, Ambedkar famously said that the provisions in the Constitution did not prevent the legislature from being summoned more often than what has been provided for. On a hopeful note, he pronounced in the Constituent Assembly, “In fact, my fear is, if I may say so, that the sessions of Parliament would be so frequent and so lengthy that the members of the legislature would probably themselves get tired of the sessions.”

Contrary to his fears, the Parliament and state legislatures are not sitting for overlong periods or even for 100 days. Nor are the nation and people tired of frequent sessions. Rather, the Opposition and other stakeholders in democracy are tired of the Modi regime displaying calculated callousness in not convening the winter session of the Parliament. Such a step negates the will of the people and the legislative intent of the Constituent Assembly.

On reflection, it appears to be the Modi regime’s strategy to invalidate the culture of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability required to examine government policies and legislative proposals. The way it pushed through the three farm bills through the Parliament without getting them examined by parliamentary committees and subjecting them to actual voting in the Rajya Sabha – as mandated by Article 101(1) of the Constitution and demanded by several members of the House – clearly indicated wilful undermining of the Parliament. Similar steps have been taken by it since 2014 to ignore the apex legislature and the deliberative and consultative process of law-making. Instead, it prefers to use brute executive dominance to frame laws without consulting stakeholders. The result is the decline of legislature and diminution of the culture of holding the government to account.

SN Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press secretary to President KR Narayanan.