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Without Question Hour, will Parliament’s role in the BJP era shrink even further?

Welcome to The Political Fix by Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, a newsletter on Indian politics and policy. To get it in your inbox every week, sign up here.

If you missed it, on Friday, we recapped six major stories that captured India over August and what you need to know about them, starting with whether India and China are going to war.

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The Big Story: Rubber stamp

Both houses of India’s Parliament were last adjourned on March 23. A lot has happened since then. Many of these developments – such as the mounting Covid-19 figures, economic growth falling off a cliff and the threat of war with China (see Friday’s issue for a recap) – would benefit from oversight by the country’s elected representatives.

After brushing off calls for special sessions to discuss these crises, the government has finally decided to convene Parliament on September 14 – coming close but not breaching the convention that there will be a maximum of six months between sittings.

Despite all that time to prepare, this late monsoon session will still be unusual and short: the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha will operate in shifts, since the chambers and visitor galleries of both houses will be used to accommodate all the members with social distancing.

A number of other changes have been put in place to reduce the chance of Covid-19 spreading:

“Officials said arrangements were made for tests of close to 4,000 people, including the MPs, staff members and journalists. Only MPs and ministers will be allowed inside the main building, while necessary seating arrangements will be made for separate sitting of their personal staff in the complex…

A new seating arrangement following social distancing guidelines has been prepared by both houses for their respective members. The MPs will also be allowed to address the Chair while seated and wearing their masks so that the risk of infection might be minimised.

The DRDO will also provide multi-utility Covid-19 kits to all MPs. Each kit will contain 40 disposable masks, five N-95 masks, 20 bottles of sanitisers of 50 ml each, face shields, 40 pairs of gloves, a touch-free hook to open and close doors without touching them, herbal sanitation wipes and tea bags to enhance immunity.”

The most controversial of the changes to operations was the government’s decision to do away with Question Hour, the daily period in both houses when Members of Parliament can put queries directly to ministers, with the aim of holding the government accountable. As the Indian Express noted:

“Over the last 70 years, MPs have successfully used this parliamentary device to shine a light on government functioning. Their questions have exposed financial irregularities and brought data and information regarding government functioning to the public domain.”

The decision to not hold Question Hour naturally provoked angry reactions from the Opposition, accusing the government of taking undue advantage of the pandemic to avoid transparency.

The government trotted out Defence Minister Rajnath Singh – who unlike the prime minister and the home minister, has cordial relations with several Opposition leaders – to explain that Question Hour would involve many more aides being present to ensure ministers can respond accurately, which the government wants to avoid.

The continued pushback, however, forced the government into a partial climbdown: unstarred questions will be permitted. This means that MPs can submit written questions to ministers and get answers in writing rather than in the House.

Moreover, Zero Hour – a Parliamentary convention of keeping some time aside for members to raise issues of national importance – will be limited to just 30 minutes per day. There will also be no fixed day for private members’ bills, i.e. proposed legislation that does not have the government’s backing.

So what will be taken up?

The government has a rather ambitious agenda for a curtailed session that will only have 18 sittings. It wants to pass 17 bills that were pending from earlier sessions, only six of which were scrutinised by a parliamentary committee.

Moreover, it has introduced 23 new proposed laws that it also wants to pass, 11 of which are ordinances that were promulgated in the interim period between sessions. Ordinances are executive orders that allow the government to change or introduce new laws without parliamentary approval between sessions, though they must be passed into law within six months of their promulgation.

In addition to all of that, supplementary demands for grants also need to be approved, since the government has decided to spend more this year than its proposals in the Budget.

Here is the whole itinerary for the session.

That would be an ambitious agenda for an ordinary session. For one in which there is much to be discussed, given the multiple crises in which India is engulfed, it reinforces a widespread view that the government sees Parliament as a perfunctory process that it needs to get through rather than one of the foundations of India’s democratic set-up.

The debate over the BJP’s approach to money bills or its criticism of the very idea of the Rajya Sabha were clear indications of the party’s poor opinion of Parliament’s role in the past.

In the current situation, the delay in holding this session, the limited consultation with Opposition leaders, the dismissive approach to Question Hour, the continued practice of pushing forward bills without committee scrutiny and the use of ordinances for issues that are not emergencies that require executive action all add to this impression.

Opposition MP Derek O’Brien, of the Trinamool Congress, brought up this issue in an op-ed pointing out that the current government has resorted to the ordinance route much more than in the past:

“Ordinances have to be approved by Parliament within six weeks of reassembly. So, is there really a problem, or are we in the Opposition only being sticklers?

No, there is a problem. In fact, two problems.

One, the BJP government thinks nothing of re-promulgating ordinances that have lapsed. This is a breach of convention and extremely undemocratic. But the Modi government has done it more than once.

Two, a bill that seeks post-facto approval for an ordinance is often rushed through the House. The deliberation and fine-tuning, the pre-legislative stakeholder consultations and the committee scrutiny, are important stages in the passage of a law. Ordinances that hurriedly become Bills and then Acts bypass this process.”

The Opposition is in fact planning to mount a challenge to four of the ordinances. These include the three laws aiming to liberalise agricultural markets, that some observers called agriculture’s “1991 moment” when these changes were proposed in May. We wrote about them here.

Farmers have taken to the streets in Punjab and Haryana to oppose these changes, fearful that they will erode the Minimum Support Price regime that guarantees a certain price for a basket of crops that are procured by the government. The farmers movement has been significant enough that the BJP’s Punjab ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal, now wants the laws to be deferred until more consultations can take place. We hope to delve further into this issue in an upcoming edition.

The other one is the Banking Regulation bill, which seeks to bring cooperative banks under the Centre with the Reserve Bank of India as the regulator. This was partly in response to the collapse of the Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative Bank. The Congress argues that this ordinance unthinkingly centralises power at the cost of state governments.

Besides this, the Opposition is also hoping to push for questions on the India-China situation, the government’s failure to keep a check on Covid-19 cases and the massive Central Vista project to redevelop government buildings in Delhi despite the severe cash crunch.

Few observers expect much from these efforts or hope that Parliament will actually be able to play its role of holding the government accountable for its decisions over the last six months and its proposed legislation.

MR Madhavan, president and co-founder of PRS Legislative, pointed out the scale of the accountability challenge:

“Parliamentary committees did not meet for about four months, and after that have had only in-person meetings, which have led to low attendance, given travel risks and restrictions.

This is unlike many other countries where both the plenary and committees have adopted technology to enable members to participate from home. In this period, over 900 central and nearly 6,000 State government notifications have been issued which are related to managing the pandemic. This is in addition to notifications on other subjects. The absence of a functioning Parliament or Committees implies that there has been no check or guidance on government action…

Parliamentarians have a duty towards Indian citizens to fulfil their role in scrutinising the work of the government and guiding policy. Despite the curtailed session and the constraints due to the coronavirus, they should make the best of the limited time to do so. They need to wrest back their rightful role in our democracy.

Flotsam & Jetsam

Home Minister Amit Shah has been hospitalised three times in the last six weeks. Most recently, he was admitted to a hospital on September 12, though there has been little transparency about his health.

Meanwhile, Congress President Sonia Gandhi has left to go overseas for a health check-up, accompanied by her son and ex-Congress President Rahul Gandhi, meaning both will miss the start of the Parliament session.

Senior leaders in the Congress, who have questioned the party’s manner of functioning of late, have also spoken up about the return to a nomination system for picking top functionaries instead of internal elections.

Former Indian Police Service officer Julio Ribeiro on Saturday wrote to Delhi Commissioner of Police SN Shrivastava, questioning the investigation into the Delhi violence in February, pointing out that BJP leaders who made inflammatory speeches have been left untouched while those who questioned the government in speeches have been dragged into the cases.

Swami Agnivesh, a social activist who “tried to reclaim the colour saffron from political opportunists”, died this week.

As did Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who resigned from the Rastriya Janata Dal just days before his death.

That’s all for today’s newsletter. Thanks for reading the Political Fix. Please send all feedback and suggestions to rohan@scroll.

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