India’s famed democracy is in a precarious place. Sure, we have elections. But elections alone do not matter. We are watching, in slow, painful motion, the gradual eroding of key democratic institutions.
There is the media, which for the most part is an unquestioning cheerleader of the BJP government. A former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court got a Rajya Sabha seat soon after his retirement, throwing all propriety out of the window. Then there are institutions like the Election Commission which have come under fire for political bias like never before. And then there is India’s Parliament.
The monsoon session of parliament ended abruptly last week, two days ahead of schedule, after almost complete chaos for the entire duration. The opposition demanded a discussion on the Pegasus snooping allegations and the repeal of the controversial farm laws, while the government kept saying no. Everyday, the House was disrupted by slogan shouting opposition MPs.
On the last day, there were shameful scenes in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, when opposition MPs rushed to the well of the House shortly after the introduction of a Bill, some trying to climb on to tables, while others got into a scuffle with the marshals.
Women MPs of the Trinamool Congress claimed that had been manhandled, leading veteran parliamentarian, Sharad Pawar, to say that in his 55 years as an MP, he had never seen women MPs “being attacked the way they were today in the Rajya Sabha, it is an attack on democracy”. The government claimed the opposite, that the MPs attacked the marshals.
Disrespecting the House
So who exactly is to blame for disrespecting the House? A message for the opposition first: we do not elect MPs to disrupt the House everyday and waste taxpayer money. But let us make one thing clear: the onus of running parliament smoothly lies with the government and always has. But this is a government that believes in tokenism when it comes to having a dialogue with it’s political opponents.
And one has to wonder: why didn’t the BJP government even want a discussion on the snooping issue? To say the matter is sub judice, as was lamely claimed some days ago, simply doesn’t fly. Matters being in court hasn’t stopped parliament from discussing other issues in the past including even the Babri Masjid issue. The opposition has every right to demand a discussion on key issues, but why was the government running away from even this?
Ironically, the BJP, which is crying for the “temple of democracy” today, used the very same tactics to make it’s point heard when it was in opposition to the UPA. Here is what some senior BJP leaders said at the time. In 2011, Arun Jaitley, then the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said- “Parliament’s job is to conduct discussions. But many a time, Parliament is used to ignore issues and in such situations, obstruction of Parliament is in the favour of democracy. Therefore parliamentary obstruction is not undemocratic.”
A taste of its own medicine
In 2012, Jaitley said, “There are occasions when an obstruction in Parliament brings greater benefits to the country … Our strategy does not permit us to allow the government to use Parliament (for debate) without being held accountable …”
That same year, then leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj had said — “Not allowing parliament to function is also a form of democracy, like any other form.” The Congress, which is leading disruptions in the House today, had at that time accused the BJP of “negating” democracy by stalling parliament.
Meanwhile, despite the chaos, the BJP government managed to get 22 bills passed in this session, most without any discussion, in a matter of minutes. According to Chakshu Roy of PRS Legislative Research, the Lok Sabha took an average of ten minutes and Rajya Sabha an average of half an hour to pass laws.
Only 11% of bills in the three years of the 17th Lok Sabha have gone to parliamentary committees. So what is the point of parliament then? When asked about this, top ministers told the media, the UPA did it too.
So basically, we will make exactly the same mistakes they did. The mess with the Farm Laws has its roots in exactly this — the unilateral approach of the BJP in ramming through laws without debate. Perhaps this suits the BJP, to pass laws without scrutiny or discussion.
Parliament today has become dysfunctional and while the opposition’s disruptive tactics may cross a line, let us not pretend that the BJP government is actually shedding any tears for democracy.