By Harihar Swarup
Long before Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there was PM Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose primary identity was that of an outstanding parliamentarian. Elected to Lok Sabha a remarkable 10 times, hurling speech after thundering speech, taking opposition attacks on the chin, when Vajpayee was PM it was sometimes so difficult to get him out of the House, that government files had to be taken to his Parliament office.
Vajpayee followed the example of his self-confessed role model, Jawaharlal Nehru, the original parliamentarian-PM who not only attended almost every day but prepared painstaking replies to all questions directed at him. Nehru and Vajpayee would have recoiled in horror at the Modi government’s recent decision to virtually abandon a long established parliamentary tradition – question hour.
Question hour in Parliament is an hour when MPs get to cross-question and interrogate ministers on urgent issues, a crucial democratic institution by which peoples’ representatives hold a powerful executive accountable. The government last week decided that for the upcoming monsoon session it was going to “do away temporarily with question hour due to the extraordinary situation caused by Covid”. Question hour is to be drastically truncated: No questions can be asked extempore, only written questions are to be submitted beforehand to which ministers will give scripted answers.
To use Covid as an excuse to restrict Parliament is highly disingenuous. In fact, it is now more crucial than ever that the government is questioned on access to healthcare and mass unemployment. However, in India coronavirus is seriously endangering the health of democracy by increasing the stranglehold of government and disenfranchising citizens. The pandemic is leading to a dangerous spike in state power and a loss of basic citizens’ rights and freedoms, a democracy deficit which may haunt us even after Covid recedes.
Yet even before Covid, there’s been a systematic dilution of parliamentary practices with ceaseless disruptions and decreasing time for genuine debate and questions. Neither the PM nor the principal face of the opposition have distinguished themselves in Parliament. Rahul Gandhi opted not to lead his party in the House, choosing Mallikarjun Kharge in 2014 and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury in 2019, the latter known primarily for feisty lung power than parliamentary intellect.
In the 16th Lok Sabha, Rahul didn’t ask a single question in question hour. Modi largely stayed away from the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate, staying silent during contentious parliamentary debates like triple talaq and Article 370 last year.
The main reason for the rising disdain for Parliament among top politicians is the increasing disjunction between electability and parliamentary performance. A media saturated politics has created personality cults which short circuit Parliament. National and state elections are fought around the personality of the supreme leader, so that most individual MPs and MLAs are faceless, lacking their own identities. They are surrogates coasting along in the backwash of a supremo-centred wave. It was the Modi persona that dominated a majority of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies in 2014 and 2019. In Bengal Mamata Banerjee is a similarly dominant leader. In fact question hour has also been cancelled in the forth-coming Bengal assembly session.
Parliament is also becoming irrelevant because of the fundamental de-legitimisation of debate across our intensely polarised society. Asking any kind of question is seen as politically motivated or loaded with “agenda”. Only when genuine debate – and not the meaningless TV shouting match – is re-legitimised, can Parliament see the return of substantive debate.
A polarised society is bound to have a dysfunctional Parliamnet. An example of political hyper polarization was seen in the recent controversy over the Parliament standing committee on IT and its decision to summon Facebook in the first place for allegations of political bias. Parliament committees are supposed to be bipartisan spaces to take up citizens’ issues. Instead there was an unseemly confrontation between BJP’s Nishikant Dubey and the chairman Congress’s Shashi Tharoor for summoning Facebook in the first place. Instead of Facebook being asked to explain itself, politicians publicly fought with each other.
Governments with hefty majorities care little for parliamentary norms. There is the ordinance route. Ordinances were meant for the extra-ordinary situations but today they’re freely used signalling an impatience with debate. From the nullification of Article 370 which was rammed through without an extended debate to amendments to the Aadhaar Bill which in 2016 was passed as a money bill (requiring only a yes in the Lok Sabha), government diktats have taken the place of legislative deliberations. The first Lok Sabha had 677 sittings, the 16th only 226. When a government refuses to be questioned or challenged, Parliament ceases to matter.
In fact in India the more powerful a politician, the less likely they are to submit to no-holds-barred questioning, seen in the fact that neither Sonia Gandhi nor Modi hold open press conferences. This regal disdain for questions does not fit into a modern 21st century democracy.
Ironically, while downsizing the value of parliamentary traditions, the Modi government has proposed constructing a new parliament building under its new Central Vista project. But instead of another brick and mortar structure, gleaming on the outside but potentially hollow on the inside, why not build better democracy within Parliament instead? (IPA Service)