Indian politicians often refer to their parliament as the “temple of democracy”. Entering the almost century old building the first time after his 2014 election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched his forehead to the stairs as a mark of respect.
Today, there is a widespread feeling the temple has been desecrated. But there is no consensus on who, precisely, is responsible for the defilement.
Under the shadow of India’s worsening pandemic, Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party this month convened parliament — suspended since March — for a compressed 18-day session. But its drive on fundamental structural reforms has fuelled allegations that it has used coronavirus as cover to force through a contentious socio-economic agenda without proper scrutiny or debate.
Proceedings disintegrated last Sunday, when laws to deregulate the internal agricultural market were pushed through the upper house — where the BJP lacks a majority — despite opposition parties’ calls for time to deliberate the bills.
Derek O’Brien, an opposition lawmaker, angrily rushed at the seat of Harivansh Narayan Singh, who was presiding, waving the parliamentary rule book, prompting accusations he had ripped its pages — a sacrilege. Mr Singh undertook a 24-hour fast, a gesture of penance, in anguish at the unruly conduct.
Mr O’Brien denied damaging the book, countering the government itself had torn up rules, traditions and precedents by refusing to send important bills to committee, or even allowing a division vote.
Indeed, the farm bills were passed in a chaotic voice vote amid doubts about the government’s majority since several of its allies, mindful of farmers’ opposition, also sought more time for consideration. “There hasn’t been any scrutiny of this bill,” Mr O’Brien said. “It’s like literally taking parliamentary democracy and shoving a knife into it — killing it.”
Days later, a controversial labour law overhaul was presented in the upper house and passed after less than two hours’ debate. The BJP also ambushed civil society organisations — including charities, religious groups and even research institutions — that receive foreign donations, unexpectedly introducing and passing legislation to restrict their operations.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an Ashoka University political science professor, says India’s parliament is moving “from being the custodian of the dignity of legislation to being a site for the acclamation of authoritarianism”.
The BJP’s strategy, he wrote in the Indian Express, “is not simply to win. It is to show that it can pretty much do anything with impunity.”
Parliament has been gradually losing its importance as a forum for deliberation and accountability for decades. In the post-independence years, it convened for an average of 120 to 140 days a year. Of late, that has fallen to just 65 to 70 days a year — even less in election years.
Yet analysts say the BJP has further reduced parliament’s relevance, bypassing committees established to improve lawmaking. Under previous Congress-led governments, around 70 per cent of bills went to committee, allowing legislators from all parties to scrutinise, debate and refine them. In this process, India built a cross-party consensus on economic reforms.
“It’s a good deliberative process. People don’t grandstand because there are no TV cameras or reporters,” says M.R. Madhavan, president of PRS Legislative Research. You can negotiate, he says.
But with its thumping parliamentary majority, the BJP appears to prefer brute force to consensus building. In Mr Modi’s first term, 25-30 per cent of bills went to committee. That has fallen to just one of out every five bills since his re-election last year, says PRS.
The BJP wrapped up the unusual session eight days early, touting 25 laws passed in 10 days as evidence of productivity. But analysts warn such tactics risk sowing seeds of dissent and dysfunction. Already, the state of Kerala is planning a Supreme Court challenge to the farm bills.
“It fuels policy instability because you have not got buy-in,” Mr Madhavan said of the BJP’s bulldozer approach. “For reforms to work on the ground you the need the support of state governments. You need some sort of consensus.”