Of late, some have interpreted the freedom of expression guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution not as a freedom to speak and express but as a licence to hold parliamentary democracy hostage by tearing down the rulebook — literally so. They have found supporters in intellectual circles, who have blamed the government — by extension the BJP — and created a smokescreen to conceal what really transpired on September 20 in Parliament to mislead farmers and other citizens of the country.
In his column, ‘Railroading the bill’ (IE, September 22) Pratap Bhanu Mehta raises three questions while referring to the passage of farm bills in the Rajya Sabha on September 20. Curiously, he doesn’t mention who came to the well of the House, who sabotaged the Deputy Chairman’s mike, who heckled him and who tore the rulebook.
I want to set the record straight because I was in the House that day. The first question raised by Mehta pertains to the Question Hour. He says it was “unnecessarily” suspended. The Question Hour was suspended because the Monsoon Session was curtailed due to the pandemic. However, the “right to question” wasn’t suspended. Only oral questions were not allowed — the members were allowed to submit written questions. The government answered 1,567 unstarred questions in 10 sittings of the House. Besides, 92 Zero Hour submissions and 66 Special Mentions on matters of urgent public importance were made. State assemblies, including in Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan and West Bengal, have also suspended the Question Hour due to the pandemic. Mehta makes no mention of them.
Mehta’s second point is about the Bills not being referred to committees. The Opposition often makes a hue and cry over the matter. But they keep opposing and obstructing Bills in the House even after the Select Committee has made recommendations. Even as the amendment to refer the Bill to the Select Committee was moved, Deputy Chairman Harivansh was surrounded by hostile members, who snatched papers from him.
Punjab, Maharashtra, Odisha and Tamil Nadu already have contract farming. A committee formed by the UPA government in 2010 had recommended that APMC and corporate licence monopolies in the agri sector should not be allowed. It’s evident that the Opposition opposed the Bills for the sake of opposing.
The third point Mehta refers to is the “division” of votes. But for a division to be allowed, the House has to be in order. Mehta curiously missed this point. Was it the BJP legislators who disrupted order? No.
Parliament had a long peaceful debate that day. The BJP gave up its own time to accommodate others who wanted to speak on the Bills — 33 members from all parties spoke. The last to speak was Congress MP Ahmed Patel. As soon as he finished speaking, members of his party and other opposition parties rushed into the Well and crippled the proceedings.
The Opposition did not have the numbers to block these legislation. This is what prompted it to execute a pre-planned strategy to stall the passage of the Bills by all means. The BJP was open to a debate and division for two reasons. One, the government had the numbers. Two, that is what the procedure lays down.
Rule 235 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business, Rajya Sabha says that a member, among other things, “shall keep to his usual seat while addressing the Council”. It also says “a Member desiring to make any observation on any matter before the Council shall speak from his place, shall rise when he speaks and shall address the Chairman”. Division is not possible when the House is not in order so as to avoid confusion in taking the votes. That’s also why Rule 235 (vii) and Rule 237 require members to be in their seats. Besides, Rule 259 requires the Chairman to preserve order in the Council and he has all the powers to do so.
Shamelessly, the Opposition shot videos of its own hooliganism and released it — again in violation of rules. The protesters put the safety of the Chair and other members at risk by flouting COVID-19 protocols. They even risked the safety of the marshals by refusing to come down from the chairs and tables they had climbed.
Neither the eight MPs identified as violators nor their parties, expressed regret, forcing their suspension from the House. The protesters then took the drama to the Parliament lawns. When the Deputy Chairman, in a spirit of statesmanship, brought tea and snacks for them the next morning, they refused to accept it. Instead, they brazenly justified their behaviour.
Some have given the situation a strange spin and are blaming the government for passing the Farm Bill, and subsequent pieces of legislation, in the Opposition’s absence. Is it the government’s job to bring Opposition MPs to the House? Did it ever deny a debate?
Explained: Making sense of the farm Bills
Parliamentary democracy requires a responsible government and an equally responsible Opposition. Will the Congress and its intellectual supporters tell the nation, how many Bills were passed during the UPA/Congress regime?
The Congress and their intellectual supporters, in a bid to justify the unruly behaviour of the Opposition, have been unsuccessfully trying to shift the blame on to the Chair. In fact, the productivity of the House was 100.47 per cent — 25 Bills were passed and six Bills introduced. The normal of high productivity witnessed during the last three sessions has continued. As a result, the overall productivity of the last four sessions is a praiseworthy 96.13 per cent — the best for four consecutive sessions during the last five years. In a sharp contrast to the 28 per cent time spent on Bills since 1952, 57 per cent of the functional time of the House was spent on Bills.
The clean chit handed to the Opposition by the likes of Mehta sets a bad precedent for democracy. If the parties and people behind the ruckus are not called out, we run the risk of seeing such ugly scenes again.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2020 under the title ‘Opposing for the sake of opposing’. The writer is National General Secretary, BJP and Rajya Sabha member
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