Across the aisle by P Chidambaram: How to diminish parliamentary democracy

The US-based Freedom House downgraded India to a “partially free democracy”. V-Dem Institute of Sweden described India as an “electoral autocracy”.

P Chidambaram, opinion
In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, India has slipped to rank 53/FILE PHOTO: EXPRESS ARCHIVE

The US-based Freedom House downgraded India to a “partially free democracy”. V-Dem Institute of Sweden described India as an “electoral autocracy”. In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, India has slipped to rank 53. In this decline, both Houses of Parliament and their members have played their part.

Readers can add their observations to my short list on how India’s parliamentary democracy has been diminished. Here is my list:

1. Rule 267 of the Rules of Procedure of the Rajya Sabha (the Lok Sabha has a similar rule) is invoked by members of the Opposition to raise a discussion on a matter of urgent public importance. In the last several months, the rule has been invoked in both Houses numerous times in order to discuss matters of urgent public importance — ranging from the Chinese incursions into India to the report of Hindenburg Research LLC. The Chair has rejected every motion. Conclusion: as far as India’s Parliament is concerned, there is no matter of “urgent public importance” that requires to be discussed setting aside the business of the day. You have to believe that the Indian people are so safe, secure and content that nothing that concerns them merits an urgent discussion in Parliament.

Also read: Across the aisle by P Chidambaram: Putting lipstick on the numbers

Presidential Prime Minister

2. The Prime Minister, if he is a member of the Lok Sabha, is the Leader of the House. Prime Minister Modi is the leader of the 17th Lok Sabha. He is rarely present in either House. He replies to the debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address every year. I cannot recall any other major intervention by him. PM Modi does not answer questions in Parliament; usually a minister speaks on his behalf. (I wish we had the Prime Minister’s Question Hour like in the House of Commons every Wednesday.) Mr Modi’s approach to Parliament is very different from the approach of, for example, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr Manmohan Singh or AB Vajpayee. The prime minister has become ‘presidential’. If prime ministers remain presidential and act presidential, not for long will India be a parliamentary democracy.

3. The House of Commons sits on 135 days a year. In 2021, the Lok Sabha held 59 sittings and the Rajya Sabha 58 sittings. In 2022, there were just 56 sittings each of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Many of the ‘sittings’ were washed out because of disruptions. Arun Jaitley famously said that “Obstructionism is a part of legitimate parliamentary tactics.” The whole Winter Session of 2010 was washed out on the demand for the resignation of a minister and the constitution of a JPC. In that session, the Lok Sabha used 6% of the allotted time and the Rajya Sabha used 2%. Of late, the tactics have been refined. In the current Budget session (second part), the Treasury Benches have led the disruptions every day. Few sittings and more disruptions will render Parliament sessions irrelevant. Bills could be passed (as they have, on occasion, in the past) without a debate. We can begin to contemplate a time when Parliament will ‘sit’ on a few days a year, debate nothing, and pass all Bills amidst the din and the disruption.

Parliament sans debate

4. Both Houses of Parliament are forums of debate. Great debates have taken place in the Parliament of India. The China-India war of 1962 in which India suffered a humiliating defeat was debated. Allegations regarding LIC’s investment in the shares of Haridas Mundhra’s companies were debated. The allegations surrounding the import of the Bofors guns were debated multiple times. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was debated. Invariably, debates end without a vote. In a parliamentary democracy, the government need not fear a debate because it will always have, or is presumed to have, a majority of the members on its side. Yet, the current government refuses to allow debates. There is an old truism: ‘the Opposition will have its say, the Government will have its way’. I am certain the government does not fear that it will lose its ‘way’. What the government fears is that the Opposition will bring to light uncomfortable truths during its ‘say’. Has India moved into an era of a Parliament sans debate? I fear so, and if my fear proves true we have to conclude that the ceremony to bid farewell to parliamentary democracy will begin soon.

Also read: Across the aisle by P Chidambaram: Pivot to the bottom 50%

5. Imagine that a session of Parliament is called. Imagine that all the members gather at the Great Hall. Imagine that all the members vote to elect a leader as the President of the Republic. There are no votes opposing the candidate. There are no abstentions. In fact, there is in other candidate. The country celebrates the result as a victory of ‘people’s democracy’. Can this happen in India? It can, because we are steadily on a course to one-party rule. If 15 states are ruled by one party and if that party (and its steadfast allies) are able to elect 362 members of the Lok Sabha and 163 members of the Rajya Sabha, nothing will stop India from becoming another “People’s Republic”. Mercifully, that dreaded prospect is some distance away but it cannot be ruled out altogether. When India becomes a “People’s Republic”, parliamentary democracy in India would have reached its final resting place.

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First published on: 19-03-2023 at 04:15 IST
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