The beginning of the monsoon session of the Parliament generates in mind the unmistakable feeling that Parliament as the apex legislature representing the supreme will of the people has diminished in stature and importance during the last four years.
The state of the Committees of Parliament where it is often said that the real work of the legislature is done is perhaps even more deplorable.
The decline of Parliament means the decline of the ideal and principle of accountability. Explaining the basic features of parliamentary democracy and presidential form of Government Dr. B.R.Ambedkar had stated in the Constituent Assembly that while the former is based on accountability of the executive to the legislature, the later is based on the stability of the executive without in any way remaining accountable to the legislature.
Then he stated that in opting for parliamentary democracy for the governance and administration of India a conscious decision was taken to prefer accountability to stability.
Accountability has been gravely compriomised with the increasingly shorter sessions of Parliament, and the money bill route followed by the government to deny the Rajya Sabha its due role in scrutiinsing proposed legislation. It is rather tragic that a stable Government enjoying comfortable majority is negating the principle of accountability by subverting parliamentary procedure and conduct of business.
Such a trend irreversibly set during the last four years weighs heavily on the heads of the protagonists of parliamentary democracy when they analyze and study the functioning of the apex legislature and agonizingly understand the break down of Parliament that late President of India and Chairman, Rajya Sabha, K. R. Narayanan, had described as a mighty substitute for a violent and bloody revolution.
It appears that the monsoon session of Parliament is effectively the last important session for the NDA Government. It will try to push through as many important bills ostensibly to take forward its proclaimed cause of “minimum government and maximum governance” even as its manifold measures have reduced Parliament to what is called a “minimum Parliament”.
A close look at the functioning of the Parliament and its Committees during the last four years of the NDA regime reveals a shocking and deplorable trend marked by non reference of most of the Bills to the department related parliamentary standing committees for scrutiny, examination and report.
After the establishment of such Committees in 1993 a convention had developed that Bills at the time of introduction would be referred by the presiding officer either of Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha where the Bill is introduced, to the appropriate committees to be examined on a bipartisan basis and Members cutting across party lines and ideologies would recommend alterations to the bills and their provisions.
In most of the cases the Government used to accept such recommendations at the time when such Bills were being discussed on the floors of both the Houses of Parliament for the purpose of passing them. It is too much to expect that the NDA Government for which the monsoon session is effectively the last important session would stick to that valuable convention which has been so badly violated during the last four years.
The time constraint would also push the government for quick passage and enactment of the Bills.This would mean severe dilution of deliberative and consultative process which is at the heart of the law making process.
The din and pandemonium often mars the proceedings of the Parliament. Quite often the presiding officers do not take forward the business on the ground that the House is not in order. It is understood that such a plea is arbitrarily used by presiding officers. For instance in the last session, in the midst of din and noise, an important amendment to the Finance Bill was adopted by the Lok Sabha. That amendment exempted foreign funding received by political parties from scrutiny.
In the Rajya Sabha when the opposition demanded that the triple talaq bill passed by Lok Sabha be referred to its Select Committee for examination and report within three weeks. The Deputy Chairman did not take up the matter citing the reason that the House was not in order. As a result that Bill is still pending without proper scrutiny.
It is likely that the proceedings of the Parliament during the monsoon session will be marred by a calculated method of disturbance and disorder to derail the proceedings. The opposition should be vigilant that the ostensible reason that “the House is not in order” should not be cited by presiding officers to stall important parliamentary business.
In fact the Question Hour should be allowed and all other business should be taken forward smoothly so that parliamentary devices can be effectively used to hold the Government to account. After all it is said that Parliament is the sounding board of the nation. Informed debate and discussion in Parliament constitute the best method to throw a searchlight on the functioning of the Government and expose its shortcomings and loopholes.
.Ambedkar rightly observed that the Parliament belonged to the opposition. It is in the interest of the opposition that both the Houses of the Parliament function without their proceedings getting disrupted. The diminishing stature of Parliament means decline of the principle of accountability and denial of space to opposition to function effectively to hold the Government to account.
For the first time in the history of the Parliament of India Presiding officers and even Ministers are interfering in the functioning of the Parliament. It was reported in the media that during the last budget session of the Parliament Shashi Tharoor, the Chairman of the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs was directed by the Speaker of Lok Sabha not to go ahead with the meeting of the Committee which was convened to discuss Doklam and other issues concerning India and China.
The Hon’ble Speaker stated that the Members of the Committee attending the meeting convened during budget session would be deprived of opportunities to participate in the budget discussion in the House and, therefore, she directed the Chairman not to go ahead with the meeting. It was an unprecedented decision. Tharoor did abide by the orders of the Speaker in cancelling the meeting but when he came to know that many other Department related Parliamentary Standing Committees had scheduled the meetings on that day he wrote back to the Speaker expressing his anguish at the selective targeting of his his Committee.
Similarly it is understood that some Chairpersons of the Committees were being asked by concerned Ministers not to take up certain subjects for discussion. All such developments endanger the functioning of Parliament and decisively weaken the principle of accountability which is the foundational pillar of parliamentary democracy.
The opposition needs to be vigilant about it. Gandhi had said in 1917 that India was fighting for Parliamentary Swaraj. Seventy years after independence the ideal of parliamentary Swaraj have come under severe assault. Parliament and parliamentary democracy need to be salvaged not only to safeguard the architecture of governance but also to defend our unity and diversity which the apex legislature so brilliantly represents.
(S.N Sahu was Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India K.R.Narayanan, served as Director in PMO during 2004 and 2009 and was with the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, views expressed are personal)