Parliament and the function of democracy

The Union Government recently did away with the winter session of the parliament citing the ongoing pandemic as a reason. The Government reasoned that since many parliamentarians had raised concerns against holding a winter session, the decision of doing away with the winter session was a logical one. The opposition parties reacted by accusing the Government of doing away with this important session in a bid to scuttle discussion and evade accountability on the important issue of the ongoing farmer agitation. Nonetheless, the Government of the day prevailed and the session was scrapped with an assurance that the session would be merged and held alongside the Budget session of the parliament in the upcoming year.

What does the Constitution Mandate:

Article 85 of the Constitution of India prescribes for summoning the parliament for holding a session and the responsibility of convening the session rests with the Union Government which is formalised by the President of India in whose name the summons of a parliamentary session are issued. Article 85(1) also mandates the President to summon each House of the Parliament from time to time and the gap between two sessions of the Parliament cannot exceed 6 months, which means the Parliament should meet at least two times in one year.

The article does not go into the details of prescribing a specific time for holding the sessions and hence the recourse of parliamentary conventions has stipulated for holding three sessions in a year. The First and the longest of all is the Budget session that starts towards the end of January and ends by the end of April or first week of May. The second session, also called the Monsoon session, is held in the months of July-August. The third and the last winter session is held in November-December.

The constitutional assembly debates reflect that this Article was widely discussed during the time of its passage and members also moved amendments to the Draft article 69 which later shaped as Article 85 of the constitution of India, seeking a minimum of three parliamentary sittings in a year. Amendments were also moved seeking that the intervention of the six months period between two sessions of the parliament to be reduced to three months. Member H. V Kamath was extremely critical of the less time this article was prescribing for holding parliamentary sessions. He went on to target the drafting committee headed by Dr B. R. Ambedkar and accused them of not being able to shake off the incubus of the Government of India Act 1935. He had remarked. “Dr. Ambedkar when he moved the resolution for the consideration of the Draft Constitution admitted that much of this Constitution has been influenced by the Government of India Act, and wisely, too, but here I think that this provision about summoning the Parliament at least twice during the year was more or less copied bodily, copied verbatim from the Government of India Act without any consideration as to what additional duties and responsibilities have devolved or are going to develop upon the Parliament of Free India. It is well-known that the American Congress and the British Parliament meet for nearly 8 to 9 months every year. The business of the State in modern times has become so intricate and elaborate of course, I am talking of Parliament in a democracy in this country and not under dictatorship and I hope we are going to have democracy in this country and not dictatorship-that no parliament in a democracy can fulfil its obligations to the people and fulfill its duties and responsibilities unless the Parliament sat every year for over six months to say the least”.

Even though the amendments were negatived by the vote of the House, the discussions around the article hammers out solid justifications for the need of regularly holding the sessions of the Parliament. The discussion also goes on to demonstrate the unflinching faith of the forefathers of our nation in the sanctity of the parliament and its role as a sentinel for safeguarding the voices o the citizens of India.

Parliaments in times of Pandemic:

While our Union Government showed tremendous resilience sometime back and held the Monsoon Session of the Parliament in the month of September, this while the daily reported case were alarmingly high. On the legislative performance front also the government was successful in passing several bills including the three controversial The Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Service Bill, 2020, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020.

In contrast, the present times have witnessed a nosedive in the reported cases and hence the argument of not holding a parliamentary session because of the pandemic doesn’t hold water.

As India, with coronavirus cases of 1,100 per million, has cancelled its Winter Session, other countries conducted their Parliament sessions amid the coronavirus pandemic despite facing a surge in number of cases. In Australia both houses of the Parliament were in session from December 1 to December 10, 2020. Similarly the Canadian Parliament was in session from November 20 to December 11, 2020 and the next session is scheduled for January 25, 2021, this with coronavirus cases of 12,866 per million. The US, with coronavirus cases of 51,251 per million held a session of House of Representatives from December 1-4 and then from December 7-10. In the United Kingdom, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are scheduled to meet on December 30th to consider draft legislation relating to the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union.

The aforementioned picture also doesn’t offer any support to the Union Governments cry of Pandemic for scuttling a session while other countries with higher cases per million still going on with their parliamentary business, thereby ensuring the sanctity of this sentinel of democracy.

Grappling with problems:

At a time when we call ourselves as the largest democracy of the world, the lifeblood of this democracy, Parliament, is grappling with a lot of problems which need urgent attention. First and foremost, the problem prevalent currently is that of the drastic reduction of the number of days for which our parliament sits and the time devoted to the transaction of business. This, to a great extent has affected the answerability and the requisite parliamentary check on the functioning of our executive apparatus, jeopardising the theory of checks and balances.

Secondly, the politics of disruption practised during parliamentary sessions also undermines its effectiveness and potency as a platform to raise the voices of our people. To our forefathers, Parliament was a moral institution and an emblem of India’s modernity but ironically for the current crop of leaders it has become something to be endured or curtailed.

The abuse of the parliamentary majority has also led to the subversion of the parliamentary process and marvel of discussion on important pieces of legislation has drastically reduced before turning them into the law of the land. This bypassing of parliamentary discussions has flared up protests and increasing resort to extra parliamentary methods of showing opposition and dissent.

The other serious concerns that need immediate redress are the decline in the quality of members, as in the 17th Lok Sabha 2019 about 233 MPs have criminal cases pending against them which amounts to about 43% of its total composition. Woefully inadequate representation of women & poor representation of minorities also dilute the healthiness of our parliamentary democracy.

Temple of Democracy:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently laid the foundation stone of the new Parliament building in New Delhi at an event that was attended by leaders from various political parties, cabinet ministers and ambassadors of different countries. Modi also performed the ground-breaking ceremony for the building, which is expected to be completed by 2022. The new Parliament building, in which Lok Sabha will be three times of its existing size and Rajya Sabha will be substantially bigger and will come at a cost of 971 crore  should not be reduced to a brick and mortar exercise, with sole emphasis on aesthetics and infrastructure. Its strength and newness will all depend on the institutional respect and paramountcy current leadership attaches to it. Way back in 2014 when PM Modi stepped into Parliament for the first time, he bowed, with his forehead touching the stairs, to register his high respect for the “temple of democracy”. He later, in his address, went on to refer and revere the Parliament as the “temple of democracy” for which he has immense respect. A similar scene was witnessed post 2019 Lok Sabha election win, when PM Modi before his address to BJP leaders walked up to the place where the Constitution rested and bowed in front of it with all austerity, before beginning his speech. Our hope and faith forces us to believe that the above stated acts of the PM should not be construed as mere symbolism, for he will certainly work as a true statesman to uphold the sanctity and strength of both the Parliament and the constitution.

Basit Amin Makhdoomi is a Lawyer at J&K High Court.