It was May 20, 2014. The Bharatiya Janata Party having won 282 seats in Lok Sabha, Narendra Damodardas Modi was unequivocally elected as the Prime Minister of India. He got out of a vehicle at the main entrance of Parliament and got down on his knees to touch his head on the front steps.
Any person watching these emotional scenes unfold, right within the round walls of Parliament, would have thought: “This Government respects the mandate given to them. This Government respects Parliament.”
But, after this emo scene, the numerous events that have unfolded in the following four years would leave no doubt that things just went rapidly downhill from there on.
Why care about Parliament?
Before we begin listing out the multiple metaphorical punches the Modi Government has unleashed on Parliament’s respectable face, it’s important to establish why the institution itself matters. To answer the big why, let’s take an unconventional peak into the Chapter 3 of our 8th grade CBSE Civics textbook.
The chapter is aptly titled: “Why do we need a Parliament?”
You can read the full chapter here.
Quite literally, even 12-13-year-old kids know why Parliament is important to ensure a well-functioning democracy and an accountable government. That the citizens elect their representatives and send them to the great round building, a group of those representatives form the government and, collectively, they are supposed to listen to the needs and demands of the people who elected them. The government’s job is to fulfil those needs to the best of its abilities and the non-government Members of Parliament have to hold the government accountable so that those demands are met.
But this is all theory that we are all taught in school. As adults, acting on these basic theories is something we’re not really good at.
Unwillingness to sit
The year 2017 saw a historically low number of Parliament sittings. The Parliament only truly functions when sittings are held. Over a period of time spanning more than a decade, the average number of days of yearly sittings has been steadily going down.
How are elected representatives supposed to hold the government accountable if Parliament doesn’t sit?
Last winter, the session was postponed and cut short because of the all important Gujarat Assembly elections. Our army of Ministers was camping out in that state so they couldn’t afford to get distracted by non-essential things like Parliament.
Even when Parliament does function, it has been marked by protests time and again. To only blame the BJP for this would be unfair though. Even the Opposition parties have been disingenuous when it comes to letting Parliament function. As it is, Parliament barely has any sittings and when it does, there is inevitable epic outrage.
Sure, the Opposition might have legitimate demands and of course, the government of the day might not be willing to listen, but disruption should never be a go-to strategy. Asking sharp questions and demanding accountability is always a better way to go. But alas.
When in doubt, pass it as a Money Bill
BJP enjoys a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha but lacks numbers in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha. For any Bill to clear Parliament, it has to pass both houses of Parliament and then assented by the President. Before the Bills are being passed, a debate is held where MPs highlight certain issues they might have with the legislation and how they might be corrected. They put in amendments to make changes in the law too. The system is designed so that one house acts as a counter-balance to the other, especially in the case of a majority government, and ensures that bad laws do not get through.
But back in the summer of 2016, the government of the day found a way around this checks and balance mechanism when it cleared the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016 as a Money Bill. Money Bills have to be cleared only by the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha can give recommendations only, which can be completely ignored by the lower house.
The Aadhaar Bill creates a subsidy delivery mechanism and experts have questioned whether it is legitimate to pass it as a Money Bill — which is supposed to only deal with matters of taxation and appropriation of funds. This has also been challenged in the Supreme Court and we are yet to see what the highest court thinks about this particular challenge.
The same method was used by this government again when they put in provisions to create a monetary policy committee (which amends the RBI Act) and retrospective amendments to allow foreign funding to political parties (which amends the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) into the Finance Bill. Neither of these belong there. These provisions were also passed as parts of a Money Bill and Rajya Sabha had no control over the situation.
In a way, this Money Bill trick made sure the upper house becomes irrelevant — where BJP doesn’t have a majority — when it comes to consideration of these all-important laws.
The last four years have seen multiple instances of Bills being bulldozed through without discussion. The most recent and the most significant one was this summer when the entire 2018 Budget of the country was cleared without discussion along with the Finance Bill. The reason being given, consistently, is that the Opposition is disrupting the house and is not interested in discussions. But the scenario is a wee bit more complicated than that.
During Budget session 2018, we saw AIADMK was the party that was constantly disrupting the Lok Sabha. Alert Parliament watchers noticed that the cameras were initially not showing which MPs were in the well of the house, but eventually gave the country a glimpse of the fiasco in the later part of the session.
TDP had put in a no-confidence motion, Congress and TMC were standing in support of the motion, but AIADMK was the one disrupting the proceedings. They were demanding immediate constitution of the Cauvery Water Management Board for the division of river water between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. A legitimate demand, but this seems to have been used as a convenient ruse to unleash chaos within both the houses.
In this confusion, the Budget was passed in half an hour along with the Finance Bill 2018. This Bill contained provisions to retrospectively allow foreign funding to political parties from 1976 onwards.
This bulldozing business is not a recent phenomenon by any standards. During Winter session of 2016 — about two weeks after Demonetisation was announced — the Finance Minister suddenly brought in a Bill called Taxation Laws (Second Amendment) Bill, 2016. The speaker allowed its passage without discussion and disallowed MPs from filing any amendments to the Bill. Any attempt to initiate a discussion on demonetisation was disallowed in Parliament.
There are some teething problems with each Bill that has been forcefully bulldozed through Parliament, from Aadhaar to the Taxation Laws to the Finance Bills of the past three years. Since no discussion or minimum discussions were allowed, since less time was given to consider the Bill and study it, there are very real problems that can arise in the future after passing fundamentally broken laws.
In 2017, the whole Finance Bill was changed in the last minute without warning while Yogi Adityanath gave a glorious victory speech in Lok Sabha.
The Modi Government has consistently been using legal loopholes to push problematic laws through Parliament, without caring about the future consequences of these actions. Whenever their outright horrible conduct is criticised, they have made it a habit to point at the previous governments and how they have used the same techniques in the past to bulldoze their way through. (“Do you remember Andhra Pradesh Re-organization Act?! DO YOU!?”)
It’s almost as if this government is eager to repeat the same mistakes and overtures made against the institution of Parliament, spanning over 60+ years. That too in rapidly in just four years.
Justification of all this is easy since there is always precedence to fall back on.
To be continued…