By Binoy Viswam
Vice-president M Venkaiah Naidu’s speech on the first Pranab Mukherjee memorial lecture led to interesting discussions. Naidu has had a long and vibrant political career spanning over 50 years. The experience he has gained, as vice-president and chairman of the Rajya Sabha, is commendable. One may agree or disagree with Naidu, but nobody can question his commitment to the ideology he holds.
As chairman of the Upper House of Parliament, he has always been considerate towards members, encouraging them to address the House in their mother tongues, and allocating more time to representatives of parties with fewer members. This has enriched Parliament. However, the Pranab Mukherjee memorial lecture delivered by him failed to address the most important issue — a disrupted Parliament.
As part of the inaugural lecture, the chairman urged citizens to hold parliamentarians who cause disruptions accountable. Calling for a campaign named Mission 5000 — to “discipline” the 5,000 elected representatives across Parliament and state legislatures — he stated that members who create conflict in Parliament should be dealt with in the same manner by the people of their constituencies, asking them to “name and shame” them on social media.
That the public must hold elected representatives accountable is unquestionable and the very essence of democracy. However, for the vice-president and chairman of the Rajya Sabha to omit the accountability of an important stakeholder — the government — in the functioning of Parliament goes to the core of the problem that plagues our Parliament and democracy.
The role of the government
In September 2012, amid a monsoon session plagued by the 2G scandal, the then leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj stated that “we had to stall Parliament to expose the government and its corruption. Anyway, it is the government’s job to run the Parliament, not that of the Opposition.”
It appears the chairman does not agree with this view since that would involve introspection on the part of the government. However, it cannot be denied or refuted that the government bears a greater share of responsibility for ensuring the constructive functioning of Parliament.
Instead, the chairman incorrectly lays the blame for a disrupted Parliament at the door of the Opposition, absolving the government of responsibility for their part in the problem. In effect, while the sovereign democratic republic moves forward, the importance of Parliament is being reduced.
A functioning Parliament
Eminent jurists and scholars of constitutional affairs are of the opinion that the elected Houses should function for at least 100 days every year. The first Rajya Sabha between 1952–1957 sat for a total of 565 days, performing its duty to guide the country through the tumultuous post-Partition period. The current Parliament, in its first term from 2014–2019, sat for a total of 343 and 341 days in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively.
At a dismal 68.6 days of functioning, the current dispensation sees Parliament sessions from the single focus of law-making, with sessions devoid of discussion or debate. The government’s attempts to deflect and suppress issues that expose their failings have become routine.
For this, they have found legitimacy through a selective interpretation of the rules of procedure. Forming the basis for Parliament’s functioning, the rules of procedure provide tools to Members of Parliament (MPs) to hold the government accountable.
Yet, in today’s Parliament, the time allotted for questions — the zero hour— has been reduced to the bare minimum, easily dispensable when the government needs to push its own agenda.
Needed: Debate and deliberation
As the apex body of legislative action and forum for the grievances of the people to be addressed, every minute in Parliament is valuable. A Parliament without differing opinions exists only in authoritarian regimes. It is, therefore, incumbent on the government of the day to ensure that issues raised by MPs are given adequate time for discussion.
Debate and discussion on all issues, and not just those that suit the government, form the bedrock of the institution. The productivity of Parliament can be ensured even in the middle of disagreements, if the rules of procedure are correctly observed. The chairman is the last resort when the rule book is disregarded.
There is no doubt in my mind that the chairman is committed to a productive and efficient Parliament. On numerous occasions, he has spoken of the need for legislation to be scrutinised by parliamentary committees as well as the need for greater debate.
However, despite these declarations, Parliament under the chairman has seen “productivity” — a measure of the number of bills passed — trump deliberative law-making, founded on debate, discussion, and diligence.
Evidence of this shift in parliamentary functioning can be witnessed from the minuscule number of bills referred to committees for scrutiny — a mere 12% under this government juxtaposed to nearly 70% under previous governments — and the mechanical speed with which bills of immense significance such as the three farm laws were passed.
The manner and conduct of this government in Parliament should be a cause for greater worry. Corrective measures in this regard would go a long way in reducing disruptions in Parliament.
What happened during this monsoon session that caused the chairman so much pain? Did the Opposition demand anything that is not present in the rules of procedure? I persistently gave notices for a discussion on Pegasus as per rule 267. My fellow Opposition members and I called for attention over the farmer and Dalit issues, abiding by every rule.
Our legal and ethical moves were opposed and attacked by the government. Our protests in the well of the House also did not stir the government. The government passed these laws within minutes and without any discussion. The Opposition and a few parties that had previously backed the government insisted that some of the bills be sent to the select committee. But the government continued with its agenda. In such situations, the Opposition resorts to obstructing Parliament.
At a time when our nation’s economy is struggling, Covid-19 has wreaked havoc, millions of farmers’ livelihoods have been threatened, public sector enterprises have been handed over to private entities, and the government is undertaking mass surveillance projects on its own citizens, the need for a strong Opposition has never been stronger.
Holding the government accountable
To use the words of the late Arun Jaitley, who explained the role of an Opposition in such situations, “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… we do not want to give the government an escape route through debate.”
That parliamentary functioning needs to improve, and every elected representative needs to be better, is a critique well taken. But at the same time, it would be misplaced to absolve governments of their role in ensuring legislative chambers, at the national and local level, function effectively.
The central government has diminished the true purpose of Parliament, turning it from a temple of accountability to a factory of unquestionable “efficiency”. The chairman’s silence is deafening. He should be aware of the differing viewpoints that have arisen in response to his lecture. I hope he will appreciate the spirit of this response and advance meaningful initiatives to improve the functioning of Parliament.
Binoy Viswam is the secretary of CPI National Council and leader of the party in Parliament
The views expressed are personal