The number of bills passed during the last session of Parliament were cited as a reason for calling it the most productive session in recent times. However, as any entrepreneur/manufacturer will tell you, the real test of productivity lies in quality and not just quantity. Let us not forget to examine the time spent deliberating on any piece of legislation from diverse perspectives. This is particularly important because there is no evidence to show if the “swiftness” of passing a legislation contributes to its effectiveness in governing.
The time allocated for the important legislative business pertaining to J&K reorganisation, triple talaq and the National Medical Council in the upper house was four hours. No wonder, careful consideration of disagreements, and respect for dissent were absent. The intention of the government seemed to be to pass the bills in both houses with just a pretence at discussion.
Also, as per the established rule of the House, parties like AIADMK, DMK, RJD, CPM, JDU and TRS get time in the range of four to six minutes, which does not allow these parties to express their views in comprehensive manner. In the best interests of a deliberative parliament, a mechanism must be evolved whereby numbers alone do not dictate the time allocated to each party.
This would also help realise Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s idea: He emphasised on multiple occasions that Parliament is not only a legislative but a deliberative body. “So far as its deliberative functions are concerned” he said, “it will be open to us to make very valuable contributions”. He advocated for better balance between legislation and deliberation, even if it requires sitting early and continuing till late. The history of parliamentary democracy from across the world shows that when any political party gets a huge majority, there is a temptation to acquire an authoritarian posture and one of the most obvious features of the same is to set aside quality deliberation by pushing legislation in haste under the cover of “mood of the nation”.
Let us not forget that understanding and explaining the mood of the nation and its reflection through a majoritarian parliament is a fundamental intellectual question that has not received due attention. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, shows that studies of the Holocaust were marred by a poor understanding and under-theorising of anti-semitism. Similarly, evidence suggest that even in the Indian case the demonisation of the “other” has been working at subterranean level for very many years. The “other” could encompass minorities, Dalits, Kashmiris or many other groups, depending on the issue at hand.
This reality has been unfolding slowly over the last several decades but we only worked on the symptoms and remained oblivious of the chronic ailment afflicting the body politic. Now those subterranean emotions are coming to the surface, unsettling a large section of civil society as well as several political parties. As a result, on the J&K reorganisation bills and on the abrogation of Article 370, faultiness across and within political parties have been exposed. Several representatives were seen appealing to their leaders to accede to the “national mood”, irrespective of the constitutional history as well as the mysterious manner in which the bills were brought to the House.
Needless to say, the ruling party poses as the sole custodian as well as the anchor of the said “mood of the nation”. It is axiomatic that a political party or a coalition of political parties need a majority in the parliament and that is how governments are formed and function. However, overpowering of parliament procedures by popular myths or half-truths of the dominant majority diminishes Parliament from being a deliberative institution to being a majoritarian one.
Parliament was always meant to engage with and undertake the legislative and deliberative business, representing the people of India and it has more or less adhered to this since 1952. In most cases, parties and coalitions in power aimed at building consensus. And when consensus building failed and legislation had to be voted upon, the minority voice was judiciously respected and not jeered. However, a majoritarian parliament is different from majority in the parliament. Majority in parliament gains legitimacy through deliberation but in a majoritarian parliament, numbers trump every other moral consideration. In a nation that prides itself on its argumentative traditions, the hectoring of minority opinion amounts to the strangulation of democracy.
As far as tailoring legislation to suit the narrative of prevailing national mood is concerned, we should open some pages of Goldhagen’s classic: “We know that many societies have existed in which certain cosmological and ontological beliefs were well-nigh universal. Societies have come and gone where everyone believed in God, in witches, in the supernatural, that all foreigners are not human, that an individual’s race determines his moral and intellectual qualities, that men are morally superior to women, that blacks are inferior or that Jews are evil.” At some point in history, each of these beliefs were held by a majority and was carried forward as the “national mood”.
A majoritarian parliament and its modus operandi should not allow us to ignore that contemporary concerns are also about an unending struggle between memory and forgetting. If not our contemporaries, history shall ask us what made us succumb to a politics of amnesia, thriving on imagined history amplified by counterfactuals. As a matter of caution we — political and ideological differences notwithstanding — must remember what the progression of events in the Third Reich tells us. But we must also remember that history is not inescapable and that our individual and collective choices with regard to the “national mood” shape it.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 18, 2019 under the title ‘How Parliament is diminished’. The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP and RJD member.
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