Democracy is a tango for two

Ramming through legislation besmirches the dignity of Parliament as much as unruly and disruptive conduct

PM Narendra Modi has called for, in many speeches in Parliament and outside it, respecting debate and dissent.
PM Narendra Modi has called for, in many speeches in Parliament and outside it, respecting debate and dissent.

Suspending 12 Opposition members of the Rajya Sabha for the entire winter session has grave portents for the country’s democratic and parliamentary functioning. The 12 were suspended on the first day of the session for “unprecedented acts of misconduct”, “unruly and violent behaviour” and “intentional attacks on security personnel” towards the end of the monsoon session, in August. No doubt, the charges against the members are serious, and merit strict punitive action. But, Rule 256 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business for Rajya Sabha, which was invoked to suspend the 12 MPs, provides for suspension “for a period not exceeding the remainder of the session”. By choosing the maximum suspension quantum allowed, the ruling party didn’t set the tone necessary for the smooth functioning of Parliament, in its true multipartisan spirit. In response to the principal opposition party the Congress’s contention that the suspension is illegal, the ruling party has dug in its heels, saying suspended members will only be readmitted if they apologise. There are reports that some Opposition parties are mulling over a boycott of the entire winter session. If things come to such a pass, both the ruling coalition and the Oppositions parties won’t come out of it smelling of roses.

PM Narendra Modi has called for, in many speeches in Parliament and outside it, respecting debate and dissent. Most recently, he said, “The government is ready to discuss all issues… Whatever voices are raised against the government or government policies, the dignity of Parliament and Speaker’s chair should be upheld”. In 2014, he had said, with reference to strength in Parliament, “We should not move on the basis of numbers, we should move on the basis of the power of the collective approach”. Rushing into the well during a debate is clearly a failure of this vision—as is stonewalling parliamentary debate by ramming through legislation without proper discussion. Many Bills have been passed by the Houses of Parliament in a matter of minutes, clearly frustrating any attempt to parse through these. The latest such instance is the Bill to repeal the farm reforms enacted earlier; it took nine minutes to pass in Rajya Sabha and three minutes in Lok Sabha. You would have thought that since the Bill to repeal wouldn’t be opposed by the Opposition parties, the government wouldn’t be too averse to a discussion—notwithstanding the likelihood of it being an opportunity for the former to assert political victory. Analysis by PRS Legislative Research shows 15 Bills were passed last session in under 10 minutes, in either of the two Houses of Parliament; over the last six sessions of Parliament, 42 Bills have been rammed through in under half an hour. And it is not just laws, discussions that matter to the democracy at large also can’t be given the short shrift. It was quite telling that the government didn’t engage satisfactorily in parliamentary debate over the Pegasus affair, and eventually the Supreme Court ordered an enquiry into the matter.

Opposition-party members must maintain the dignity of the House, but given how tumultuous proceedings get when the issues are contentious and the government uninterested in a discussion, the ruling dispensation can’t shrug off responsibility. It needs to engage better for more fruitful parliamentary functioning. Ruling dispensations, including those that had some of the parties affected by the current suspension in their fold, have used Rule 256 13 times since 1962, to suspend a total of 26 members, The Indian Express reports. The Rule also provides for overturning suspensions, and the ruling dispensation would do well to get reconciliation-minded, especially if it truly values what the PM has said a number of times.

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