Parliamentary Session Merely A "Notice Board" For Government Decisions?
After a nearly six-month hiatus, the Indian parliament
will reconvene in mid-September at a time of deepening national crisis. But I
fear that it may be unable to hold the country's failing government to
Parliament is obliged to meet now, because
India's constitution limits the gap between sessions to six months, and the
Covid-19 pandemic has forced all sessions to be suspended since March. With 4.5
million cases to date, India is now the world's second worst-affected country,
surpassing Brazil and Russia and behind only the United States.
Moreover, infection rates are rising, especially
in rural areas where testing had not been adequately extended earlier.
Fortunately, the Covid-19 mortality rate remains relatively low, at 55 per
million people, representing just 1 percent of deaths from all causes.
But if lives have not ended, livelihoods have,
owing to draconian but ineffective lockdowns introduced in March. GDP collapsed
by 23.9 percent year on year in April-June, making India the world's
worst-performing major economy. Unemployment is rife-some 21 million salaried
jobs have been lost during the pandemic, and millions more in the informal
sector, especially among day laborers, who are now unable to make ends meet.
Small and micro enterprises are being shuttered throughout the country. And the
millions of migrant workers who trudged home in despair during the lockdown
have found themselves no better off in their home villages' stagnant economies.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government seems
utterly helpless to stop the economic meltdown, as if paralysed by the
plummeting indicators in every sector. A much-hyped fiscal stimulus turned out
to be less than one-tenth of the size that Modi had claimed, and failed to
alleviate nationwide distress. The budget adopted just before the lockdowns is in
tatters, its every assumption rendered irrelevant.
As if all this weren't bad enough, a major
crisis has erupted on the country's disputed border with China, where 20 Indian
soldiers were brutally killed in June in the icy Himalayan heights of Ladakh. Talk
of disengagement has failed to translate into withdrawals, and both sides have
sent reinforcements to the tenuous Line of Actual Control that divides their
forces. This week, the two countries' foreign ministers announced a new
agreement to disengage, although it remains to be seen whether this will be
Meanwhile, Pakistan has stepped up its
cross-border militancy in Kashmir, which is seething with unrest following last
year's clampdown by Modi's government. Many increasingly fear that India may be
facing a two-front war before the year is out.
All this should normally make for a lively
parliamentary session. But the legislature will itself meet in abnormal and
straitened circumstances, reflected in the extraordinary measures announced in
advance of the session. No MP may enter the premises without a Covid-negative
certificate from a test administered within three days of the session. Inside,
social distancing will apply in the usually cramped chambers, with MPs
distributed throughout the upper and lower houses and the visitors' galleries.
As a result, the two houses will take turns
meeting for a half-day each in sessions lasting four hours instead of the usual
six, and on all seven days of the week rather than the traditional five. Worse,
the government and the presiding officers have decided that, given the shorter
sessions, they will dispense with Question Hour, the only opportunity for MPs
to demand unscripted answers from ministers on a variety of subjects. (In
response to the outcry, the government has agreed to accept written questions
two weeks in advance, to which ministers will provide written answers.)
Suspending Question Hour is typical of a
government that abhors being questioned. Modi has not held a single press
conference in India in his six years in office, and is notorious for granting
interviews only when the questions are pre-approved. Protesters questioning the
government in the streets are charged with sedition, and critics are denounced
as anti-national. A prominent lawyer who tweeted his objections to recent
Supreme Court decisions was convicted of criminal contempt. And the mainstream
news media, far from interrogating the government's performance, has recently
been fixated on the lurid details of a Bollywood actor's suicide and the
conspiracy theories swirling around it.
In the meantime, the government stumbles on and
tries to mask its ineptitude with a variety of public-relations stunts,
including a bizarre recent photoshoot of Modi feeding peacocks in his garden.
The official response to failure is denial, as with Modi's recent claim that
India had lost no territory to China, despite satellite pictures and evidence
on the ground that clearly indicate otherwise.
China has gleefully seized on this statement to
deny that it has encroached on over a thousand square kilometres (386 square
miles) of land. China's leaders are not the first to realise that they can get
away with anything with this Indian government, as long as Modi can claim
victory at home.
Parliament therefore has a vital job on its
hands, but many MPs fear that it will be unable to do it. The government will
use its crushing majority to pass the bills it wants, particularly those
converting a dozen ordinances or executive orders issued during the last six
months into law, while sidestepping debate on the issues that matter.
The government's tendency to use its
parliamentary majority as a rubber stamp was already apparent in previous
sessions. And this session could be cut short at any sign of Covid-19-one MP
has died from it since March.
The visible measures necessitated by the
pandemic-face masks, greater distance between MPs, and plastic partition
screens-may not be all that is different about this parliamentary session. I
fear that our democracy's highest legislative body will be reduced to a
noticeboard for government decisions. There is a genuine risk that while India
will honour the outward forms of parliamentary process, the spirit of debate,
discussion, disagreement, and deliberation will be missing.
Shashi Tharoor, a former UN
under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External
Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is an MP for the
Indian National Congress.