Updated: November 30, 2021 7:29:09 am
It is becoming more or less customary to assess Parliament’s “performance” at the end of a session, typically in terms of bills discussed and passed. It is equally necessary to take stock of the issues facing the country and set expectations about what Parliament should be doing when the session is to commence. Such an exercise for the current session would surely be set against the backdrop of the hasty manner in which bills have been rammed through Parliament, and then sought to be repealed. In the current session, three Acts will probably be presented for repeal. They were passed earlier amidst demands to refer them to a select committee. It is not clear whether these laws will be mechanically and summarily repealed as the largesse of the majority party or if there will be a robust discussion delving into circumstances that led to their imminent repeal. To be sure, Parliament will now have an opportunity to wonder why its time — often erroneously counted in terms of rupees per minute — was wasted in the first place.
There has been enough media attention on the government’s decision to repeal the three farm laws. It is also necessary to analyse the farm law episode from the standpoint of the parliamentary system and the functioning of Parliament in general. The announcement to withdraw these laws brings into sharp focus the rift between Parliament and protesters who have doggedly resisted the laws for over one year. As a result, these laws will have the distinction of having been passed but never implemented. Though not withdrawn, a similar fate hangs over the head of the CAA and the decision to prepare a national register of citizens. In fact, during the past two years, Parliament has passed quite a few bills whose constitutionality is in serious doubt and which are challenged by social sections affected by them. How can we understand this continuing disconnect?
This Lok Sabha — increasingly the Rajya Sabha as well — poses a riddle for the theory of representative democracy. The ruling majority has a handsome majority — a 300 plus representation in the Lok Sabha — and by the standards of the FPTP system, a reasonable vote share of over 37 per cent. In addition, if one considers the folklore generated around the PM’s appeal, this should be considered a fairly popular government in recent history. Yet, this is also a government that has drawn severe criticism from multiple quarters. The current moment is marked by a slide in India’s status in international rankings on democracy, human rights and press freedom, an ever-increasing number of sedition cases and spiralling UAPA cases.
To complicate matters, laws passed by Parliament are increasingly being seen as unacceptable. This non-acceptance is, perhaps, restricted to a small section. But the arguments put forward by them remain persuasive. The sustained anti-CAA agitation, a couple of years ago, did strike a chord with a section of people while the agitation against the farm laws actually forced the government to backtrack—something it is not known for. The “majority” government seems less representative than many minority governments of the past. The government may have the majority in numbers, but does not have the capacity to take the majority along. It seems to take its majority for granted.
At this juncture, an important responsibility lies with the Opposition. In Parliament, it will need to ensure coordination on common issues, strategise on parliamentary procedures and above all, endeavour to represent voices that have been suppressed by the current regime. In other words, the responsibility of representation now shifts to the Opposition. Acrimony might be unavoidable given that the current regime doesn’t give adequate respect to differences of opinion. But it is incumbent on the Opposition to avoid creating pandemonium merely as a tactic. Noise and sloganeering cannot replace the responsibility to represent. Pandemonium is only a cover up for bad coordination and lack of homework.
While party politics implies that the Opposition needs to take up the responsibility to challenge and probe the government, the idea of representation requires that all MPs are sensitive to public opinion as well as to protests outside Parliament. The role of ruling party MPs is not merely to ram through the House whatever the government wishes but to also probe the executive delicately. In allowing the government to sidestep all opposition, the MPs from the ruling party create an atmosphere wherein they lose any semblance of authenticity in their role as representatives. If the likes of Varun Gandhi keep doing in Parliament what they are doing or saying outside, that would certainly make Parliament a much more representative forum. Such independence of ruling party members is connected both to intra-party democracy and to intra-party factionalism. When parties have factions, they become democratic in their internal functioning. Whether Varun Gandhi is disgruntled is not the point. The issue is whether they have the courage to express their dissatisfaction. It is also important that they have an intellectual position of their own. Do MPs from the ruling party take their role and their constituents seriously for re-election or are they entirely dependent on party bosses for getting re-elected? The litmus test to their independence will be in how they express themselves in Parliament. In any case, for Parliament to regain its representative character, ruling party members need to be more sincere about the parliamentary system, and unafraid of executive power.
Finally, we would not be raising these matters about a gap between Parliament and society if resilient protests had not taken place in the first place. Protests have played, and will continue to play, a critical role in forcing us to confront the issue of representation. In times, when it is becoming intellectually fashion to villianise the civil society, it must be reiterated that no democracy can exist without a robust civil society. Its tension-ridden relationship with party politics must be recognised. In that sense, the rising antinomy between Parliament and protests is more because of the unrepresentativeness of Parliament than due to the rebellious ways of civil society. All democracies have learnt this the hard way. Such contestations alone constitute the core of democracy. Contrary to a typical policeperson’s wisdom, masquerading as security theory, civil society does not cause civil war — its suppression causes civil war.
The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics