BJP is kissing parliamentary democracy goodbye

BJP is kissing parliamentary democracy goodbye

In the light of my personal experience over the last five years, I can say that parliamentary democracy in India is facing one of the toughest phases since Emergency

Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi bends down on the steps of the main entrance of Parliament as a sign of respect as he arrives for the BJP parliamentary party meeting at Central Hall in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI Photo

After winning the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, Narendra Modi, while arriving at the parliament building, kissed the stairs of the hallowed institution. It was an emotionally overwhelming image not only for those who had voted for him but also for those who always stood at a distance from the politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Nine years later, that kiss looks ominous from the perspective of the quality and context of deliberation within Parliament, as well as the approach of the ruling party towards its functioning.

In the light of my personal experience over the last five years, I can confidently say that parliamentary democracy in India is facing one of the toughest phases since Emergency. The strongest symptom of the shortcomings of the contemporary Parliament comes from the length of the session as well as the nature of discussion in both the houses. In the last few years there has been considerable decline in the number of days Parliament is in meeting. The debates on crucial issues, if they are at all allowed space and opportunity, are either perfunctory or browbeaten by the treasury benches.

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Basic books on civics and political science available to the school-going children underline the roles Parliament play in a democratic system. It represents the interests of the people, it is a space to debate, deliberate and pass laws, and it provides oversight of the government. Through application of these simple yardsticks to evaluate the functioning and health of parliamentary democracy, we get a report card which does not give a good picture of the well-being of the institution.

The foremost issue in this regard is the excessive control of the executive over the legislature. The huge concentration of power in the executive branch has marginalised the role of Parliament. In itself, concentration of power is not a problem; it is a problem when it is wielded in an arbitrary and overbearing manner. The executive branch, without doubt, dominates the political landscape and holds significant decision-making authority. If such domination takes the form of unyielding arrogance, the legislative branch may struggle to exercise its oversight and legislative functions effectively.

Let us recall all those contentious Bills which were bulldozed through the might of the executive following the majoritarian push by the BJP. Besides, there have been absolute lack of transparency and accountability. It can be seen through the fact that several ministries have halted the periodic release of data. Any international data which shows a mirror to the Union government is looked at with contempt and disdain. Parliaments thrive when there is transparency and accountability in government operations. If there is a lack of transparency, it becomes difficult for parliamentarians to perform their duties effectively, leading to a general perception of redundancy.

The last nine years have also witnessed complete erosion of democratic norms inside Parliament. India’s Parliament, like several other parliaments in the world, functions on rules as well as tradition and precedence. The ruling BJP, under Modi’s leadership, is quite uncomfortable with tradition and precedence, and this has cast a shadow on the chairs in both the Houses. As a result of which they appear to act in the interest of the party in power, rather than upholding the rule book and discharge their function as neutral referees.

This gradual erosion of democratic norms and institutions has led to members of Opposition being treated as enemies, not as members with a different viewpoint. Such thought process is further stretched to a whole new level when members who oppose the government’s policies are labelled ‘anti-national’.

Look at the debates around abrogation of Article 370, the CAA-NRC, farm laws, and the subsequent postures of the government’s outside and we realise the extent of this disorder, which has unfortunately become the hallmark of the Modi regime.

A look at the plight of the committee system in last nine years is yet another example that the government abhors the idea of legislative oversight. While the government should have worked to strengthen the role of Parliament in oversight functions by providing adequate resources, research support, and training for lawmakers as members of those committees, it chose to make their role inconsequential. When critical democratic principles are weakened and disregarded in this manner, Parliament faces everyday violent encounters from the government side in discharging its core functions.

The last decade or so also reminds us that the government has summarily failed in strengthening core institutions which are sine qua non for the overall health of parliamentary democracy. Not long ago, the then law minister said there were some retired judges who are part of an “anti-India” gang. In the name of the retired judges the message was also for the entire judicial architecture. One just needs to look at and read the arguments provided by the law officers in several cases, particularly related to sedition charges to understand that how executive is trying to feed the judiciary with either misinformation or alternative facts.

Finally, what to speak about other institutions such as the media, particularly electronic media that have been made so compliant of the government narrative that it almost appears as another wing of the government. Counterfactually speaking, an independent media could have shed light on the government's failures, inefficiencies, and policy shortcomings. Borrowing a leaf from authoritarian regimes, the Union government has blurred the distinction between propaganda and information. Thus, the summation of the concerns shared here clearly indicates that what is going on in Parliament is afflicting the idea of democracy on the streets as well.

Manoj Kumar Jha is an RJD leader, and Member of the Rajya Sabha. Twitter: @manojkjhadu.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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