Disturbing erosion

Disturbing erosion

The just-concluded winter session has marked a new low in the sanctity of parliamentary democracy. The truncated 12-day session that concluded on January 5 has been the shortest in recent history. Parliament used to sit 120-plus days till a few years ago, but the number of sittings has since plummeted and last year the House sat for less than 70 days.

The budget session begins on January 29, leaving a gap of only 15 working days between the winter and budget sessions for parliamentary committees to scrutinise and fine-tune bills. The first phase of the budget session will conclude on February 9 and after roughly 24 days recess for standing committees to examine the demand for grants of various ministries, will resume on March 5 and conclude on April 6.

The triple talaq bill, which seeks to make instant divorce a criminal offence, was cleared by the Lok Sabha, but hit the Rajya Sabha wall, with the Opposition demanding its scrutiny by a select committee. The House was adjourned sine die without passing the triple talaq bill and the crucial Lokpal law. While the government was in a tearing hurry to push the talaq law, it showed no interest in clearing the Lokpal bill languishing in the lower House since 2014.

The Congress wanted to raise the issue of an alleged scam involving BJP president Amit Shah's son and the "questionable" Rafale fighter deal. However, the government thwarted the Congress move by delaying the winter session till Gujarat had voted. Post-Gujarat poll, the Congress did not pursue either matter in Parliament.

The Gujarat election was an alibi for pruning and postponing the session as the prime minister, nearly 50 Union ministers and some 120-odd MPs were drafted for campaigning. The new trend of the prime minister being the star campaigner in state elections and almost the entire cabinet following him bodes ill for parliamentary democracy.

Prime ministers ordinarily address, at the most, four or five rallies in a state election. But Modi changed the rules of the game. Critics say that by squeezing sessions, the government ensures that many critical but unpalatable issues are not raised in Parliament; this questionable tactic emanated from Gujarat.

The complexion of the Rajya Sabha has since undergone major changes, with BJP emerging the largest party while the Opposition ranks stand depleted. The House will miss stalwarts like Sharad Yadav, Mayawati and Sitaram Yechury, all ceased to be members from the winter session.

Though Yechury has a chance to return to the House via Kerala in April, it looks unlikely because of the factional feud in the CPM. Kerala comrades are said to be pushing the candidature of a political novice, son of the state JD-S chief, for the Upper House berth. If that happens, not only the CPM, but the Opposition will lose a powerful anti-BJP voice in the House.

The BJP now has 58 members in the Upper House and the Congress 57. The NDA as a whole has 121 members in the 245-member House. By July, the BJP's strength will rise to 65. Save Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Opposition also does not have good political minds in the Upper House. On Friday, veteran Karan Singh retired after a 40-year parliamentary stint; later this month, the terms of Janardan Dwivedi and Parvez Hashmi will end. In contrast, the BJP has bolstered its position by inducting many heavyweights, including its powerful party president Amit Shah.

Another unsavoury feature that marked the session was that the PM became the cause for disruption. The Congress stalled the House for a week demanding an apology from Modi for his insinuation against former PM Manmohan Singh.

After a week, the PM outsourced the "apology" part to Arun Jaitley, who deftly clarified that Modi did not intend to question the integrity of his predecessor. Jaitley's statement doused the House fire and normalcy returned, but only till caste clashes erupted in Maharashtra and the government attempted to steamroll the triple talaq bill. If a magnanimous Modi had clarified his comments earlier, Parliament could have salvaged at least five working days lost in the standoff.

All eyes on polls

The party has not been able to explain why it is in such a hurry to pass the triple talaq law and why it is avoiding the select committee that could have addressed Congress's reservations on the criminality clause. If a husband (breadwinner) is lodged in prison as punishment, who will provide financial support to his wife and children?

Critics suspect that the BJP may want the issue to linger until the Karnataka elections and that is why it was not ready for any amendments or the select committee scrutiny. Exposing the BJP's political calculations behind the bill, an array of senior party leaders, including Union ministers Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Ananth Kumar and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi accused the Congress of being pro-clerics and sabotaging the rights of Muslim women.

Such was the BJP's desperation to paint Congress as anti-Muslim women that the treasury benches disrupted the proceedings with even senior cabinet ministers standing up and leading the ruckus to drive home their point that only BJP cared for the rights of Muslim women.

Ishrat Jahan, one of the five petitioners in the case, has since joined BJP and the party is planning to use her in West Bengal to woo Muslim women voters. Though the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in the UP election, post poll, Chief Minister Adityanath inducted a Shia as minister and appointed another Shia as chairman of the state minorities' commission.

Is the BJP plotting to divide Muslim society along gender lines after attempting to drive a wedge between Shia and Sunni Muslim sects? If so, it will hardly serve the interests of the minority community.

(The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator)

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