Monsoon Session broadened divide between Oppn, govt

Monsoon Session broadened divide between Oppn, govt

Ultimately, this lead to a political impasse, with neither side willing to accommodate or compromise on their stands

Seventeen new bills were on the government’s agenda to be introduced in this session. Credit: PTI Photo

Parliament is a forum for politics and discussion. Its sessions have a dual purpose. Members of Parliament across the aisle use this national forum to draw attention to problems faced by the people. They use different parliamentary mechanisms to keep critical national governance issues on the radar of the government. The MPs question the government on its functioning and point them towards blindspots in its work.

The session is also an opportunity for the government to get inputs and sign-off from Parliament on legislative proposals to plug gaps in our legal framework. In the recently concluded monsoon session, none of these purposes was accomplished. What did happen was a broadening rather than a narrowing down of differences, ultimately leading to a political impasse, with neither side willing to accommodate or compromise on their stands. As a result, the entire session of Parliament was washed out.

In a parliamentary democracy, both the ruling and opposition parties are stakeholders in improving the governance in the country. Their adversarial stance on issues is not supposed to obstruct but to highlight the weakness in each other’s ideas. The outcome of the debate is that the tool of governance gets sharpened and the different sides get to understand the other’s perspective. But during the 17-day session, Lok Sabha did not debate on any major policies. Although a discussion on Covid-19 was on the agenda for nearly a week, it could not be taken up due to continued disruptions.

The debate on farmer’s issues almost took place in Rajya Sabha during the final week of the Monsoon Session. However, it had to be abandoned due to pandemonium in the House. There was a lack of consensus between the political parties on how the topic was framed for discussion. Rajya Sabha had some success in discussing the management of Covid-19 in the country. In the first week of the session, more than 20 members took part in this discussion which lasted five hours.

Seventeen new bills were on the government’s agenda to be introduced in this session. Among them were ordinances introduced during the intersession period and some legislative proposals that the Finance Minister had announced in her Budget Speech. These included the Bill to increase private participation in general insurance companies and amendments to ensure that depositors get their insured deposits within 90 days of a bank going into default.

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The two Houses also approved an ordinance that provided the Pre-Packaged Insolvency Resolution Process (PPIRP) for small businesses. All these bills were passed in both Houses and without any debate. On average, a Bill was discussed for 34 minutes in Lok Sabha while it was discussed for 46 minutes in Rajya Sabha.

Towards the end of the session, the political deadlock was broken when political parties agreed to discuss the Constitution (127th Amendment) Bill, 2021. The bill permits states to prepare and notify their own lists of backward classes.

It was the only law that was discussed extensively in both Houses. Lok Sabha discussed it for about eight hours and Rajya Sabha for about six hours.

Disruption in parliamentary functioning is one of the outcomes of the flawed mechanism in which our Parliament meets for its sessions.

Our Constitution gives the legislature the responsibility to hold the government accountable and to make laws. But it empowers the government to decide when and for how long Parliament should meet to keep a check on it. Over the years, there has been a steady decline in the number of working days of Parliament. Successive governments have offered the explanation that with the advent of parliamentary committees, there has been a reduction in the workload of the legislature and it does not need to meet for longer periods.

The disruptions and repeated adjournments of House proceedings are further exacerbated by the lopsidedness of allocation of time for debate in Parliament. During a parliamentary session, the government has a major role in deciding what gets discussed in the two Houses. Then the allocation of time for debate is based on the numerical strength of the parties. As a result, smaller parties don’t get enough time to put forward their views during a discussion on a subject. When MPs from smaller parties participate in discussions on bills, they often have to frustratingly make their arguments in three to five minutes. This is worse in Lok Sabha, where smaller parties get less time than Rajya Sabha because of the House’s larger size.

Limited sittings

The limited number of sitting days, government setting the agenda, and inadequate time to discuss issues lead to disagreements and differences. MPs can make interventions through other devices such as initiating proposals through Private Members’ Resolutions and Bills. But the time allotted is only 2.5 hours on Fridays in each House. In this session, Parliament adjourned early on all days allocated for Private Members’ Business. And in the last one year, Lok Sabha took up Private Members’ Business for only about an hour, while Rajya Sabha did not take up private business at all.

Members of the Parliament (both current and former), and the Speakers and Chairpersons of the House recognise that the decline in the number of sitting days must be reversed.

Fixing a minimum number of sitting days is a long-pending reform proposed in several private member bills and annual conferences for party whips. A 2017 private member bill by Naresh Gujral — the Parliament (Enhancement of Productivity) Bill — recommended a minimum of 100 sitting days for Parliament.

The same bill also proposed a 15-day Special Session every year, one where the non-ruling parties could have a bigger say in setting the agenda without any government business.

This system can be found in other legislatures too. In Parliaments such as the UK and Canada, days are reserved for the House to discuss a topic of debate chosen by the Opposition members. Gujral’s Private Member’s Bill was not passed after a discussion in 2019. The spirit of the Bill, however, can still be carried through by revising the rule books of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.

The Special Session planned to commemorate 75 years of India’s Independence can be turned into a session to give consideration to the views of both the government and opposition parties.

The number of working days of Parliament should be increased and its calendar of sittings fixed in advance at the beginning of the year. These measures can not only go a long way in addressing the issue of disruptions and restore both the citizens and MPs faith in the institution of Parliament.

(Raghavan is Programme Manager, PRS; Roy is Head of Outreach, PRS Legislative Research)