By staying away from the Constitution Day event organised in the Central Hall of Parliament on November 26, opposition parties demonstrated tactics that would be adopted collectively when the winter session of Parliament gets underway.
The winter session, which was cancelled last year citing the pandemic, is important on more than one count. After truncating two preceding sessions – budget and monsoon -- in a row this year, much ground is expected to be covered both in terms of legislative agenda and in discussing issues the country is grappling with.
In the run-up to the session, Chairman of the Rajya Sabha M Venkaiah Naidu, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla and the government held customary meetings with floor leaders of parties in Parliament to strike a work balance. While the government listed its priorities, underscoring the legislative business it wants to transact, the Opposition preferred to stress on the issues it wants to debate.
For now, one agenda on which both the government and the Opposition have unanimity is the repeal of the three farm laws. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing the decision of his government to repeal these Acts, the process for the procedure was set in motion with the Union Cabinet providing assent to legislative formality.
Yet, this move sets a different template for the Opposition to press home for more concessions both on measures related to agriculture and expand it to other issues according to party priorities.
The move to take back the laws through Parliament will embolden a disparate Opposition seeking an emphatic role to mark presence. While most news reports mentioned that the November 19 announcement by the Prime Minister is the second such instance of the BJP-led government stepping back, withdrawal of farm laws signals a significant departure.
In the case of the 2015 Land Acquisition Act, the government decided not to press for re-promulgation and allowed the ordinance to lapse. In the case of the farm laws, PM Modi made a public announcement and apologised to the nation for failing to explain the benefits to a section of farmers demonstrating against these measures.
On their part, the protesting farmers have preferred to dig in their heels. The organisations spearheading the movement want the process to be completed in Parliament and then seek a guarantee in the form of legislation on Minimum Support Price before taking a call on ending the year-long sit-in on the outskirts of Delhi.
The second demand has its own set of calculations, considering the huge economic component and commitment that would bind the government to. While on the face of it no party would be able to oppose the move, its long-term implications require careful consideration and thorough calculation. A debate on the subject would generate a set of ideas around which policymakers can begin preliminary work.
The government listed a set of bills it plans to move for consideration and passage, including one on regulation of crypto currencies and the creation of an official digital currency. Among the slew of 26 bills for introduction in this session, this is both forward-looking and necessary in the backdrop of growing use of crypto currencies by a section of investors.
However, what remains to be seen is how many of these bills that are introduced are referred to parliamentary committees for detailed scrutiny. Over the past two Lok Sabhas, the Opposition has been crying hoarse over the dwindling number of bills sent for such examination.
Absence or reduced oversight by committees can result in a piece of legislation coming to the floor for debate, but that debate has to be done in the limited time allotted. It is different when a bill passes through the rigorous process applied by a committee in a non-partisan manner. In addition, committees often invite stakeholders and draw upon domain experts to hear varying viewpoints before arriving at a set of recommendations. The recent decision on the farm laws, which were passed by Parliament without such an examination, is being cited as a case in point.
The argument that committees take time in preparing a report and delaying law-making does not hold. These, and the fact that at times parties with different viewpoints present dissenting notes, are all a healthy part of the process. The committee process is a legitimate tool available to members and eventually the recommendations may result in the bill undergoing some changes. As for the time taken, until the committee through its chair and members are satisfied to have arrived at a conclusion or a 360-degree view is obtained, it can seek time from the House for an extension to submit a report.
Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla recently reiterated the need for greater parliamentary oversight, which would be strengthened when committees adopt changes to keep pace with the challenges of the present times.
The overhang of stalling of proceedings and disruptions remain. It is here that both the parliamentary managers of the government and leaders in the Opposition have a role. In a parliamentary democracy, both are responsible for its functioning. Members of the Opposition, individually or collectively, need to be creative in having their say, instead of resorting to stonewalling, a familiar tactic employed for nearly three decades. Statistics available will show the amount of time lost in both the Houses on account of disruptions.
Also inherent in the maxim that in Parliament, the Opposition can have its say, but the government will have its way, is the spirit of accommodation by the party running the government. This session should be the penultimate one before Parliament reassembles in mid-2022 to mark completion of its 70 years and thereafter move into a new building. It offers an opportunity to set a new benchmark.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based political commentator)