The Preamble to the Indian Constitution — “We the people of India… adopt, enact and give to ourselves this constitution” —declares the ultimate sovereignty of the people. The Constitution rests on the authority of the people. This idea is exercised through the instrument of representative democracy.
According to constitutional experts, parliamentary democracy consists of the representation of the people, responsible government and accountability of the council of ministers to the legislature. We, the Members of Parliament, owe our power directly or indirectly to the people of India.
I am goaded to quote Edmund Burke: “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not Member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament.”
So, when people elect a representative, he or she represents the people of the country irrespective of colour, creed, caste and religion. We elected representatives to carry forward the people’s mind, which includes their weal and woe and the views of the nation, as an input to Parliament and extract as an output the plethora of Acts, rules, sub-rules, etc, to serve the country. We safeguard the basic features of the democratic republic, infused with the spirit of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. Parliament is considered the arena of debate and dialogue, dissent and discussion — the diadems of parliamentary niceties.
There is no gainsaying the fact that COVID-19 has affected every segment of our national life. Each and every institution has been undergoing a paradigm shift to deal with this threat. One such institution is Parliament, the sanctum sanctorum of Indian democracy. The people of the country have long remained watchful of Parliament’s proceedings as the power of the executive originates from this august House.
In the wake of the pandemic, a question has been in the air: How will Parliament resume business?
The Finance Bill concerns the country’s finances, ranging from taxes and expenditure to the government’s borrowings and revenue, and more. After the presentation of the budget, the Finance Bill is introduced in the Lok Sabha. In a word, it is crucial to the country. Now, consider that the Finance Bill has been passed without a word of discussion in Parliament — an unprecedented event. And since the prorogation of the House due to the pandemic on March 23, no standing committee has conducted any business.
In normal circumstances, there are three sessions of Parliament in a year — the Budget Session, Monsoon Session and Winter Session. The Monsoon Session is generally held from July to September. This time, a new modus operandi for the functioning of the House has to be worked out. Several options can be considered, learning from the best practices of legislatures around the world.
First, there can be the usual meetings/sittings but with preventive measures in place to protect MPs. In addition to ensuring social distancing, Parliament’s premises can be sterilised as per WHO guidelines. Legislatures in Egypt, France, Germany, Israel, Sweden and the European Parliament have opted for this model.
Second, Parliament sessions can be attended remotely through video conferencing and web meetings. Indonesia, Venezuela, South Africa, Poland, Argentina, Brazil and many others have opted for this model.
Third, a hybrid model, which incorporates elements of both the above models, can be considered. The Philippines and the United Kingdom can serve as a guide in this regard.
Article 85(1) in the Constitution states: “The President shall from time to time summon each House of Parliament to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit, but six months shall not intervene between its last sitting in one Session and the date appointed for its first sitting in the next Session.”
The maximum gap of six months between sessions is important to be kept in mind. The last sitting of the 17th Lok Sabha was on March 23. Six months or 180 days will elapse on September 19. The House must be summoned before that date.
Our Constitution states that the President may summon Parliament “to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit”. Besides, the rules of procedure of both Houses require the secretary-general to issue summons to each MP specifying the “date, time and place of commencement of the season”. These enabling clauses can be used to hold the sittings of the House through hybrid or remote meetings.
A crucial factor that should not be lost sight of is that though the power to summon Parliament is vested in the President, the latter acts on the advice on the council of ministers, headed by the prime minister.
A session is not terminated by adjournment. During the eighth Lok Sabha, a session which commenced on February 23, 1987, was adjourned sine die on May 12, 1987. The Lok Sabha, however, was not prorogued. On a proposal from the then Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, the Speaker, exercising his powers under rule 15 of the Rules Of Procedures and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha, agreed to reconvene the sitting of Lok Sabha from July 27 to August 28, 1987. The two parts, preceding and following the period of adjournment, were treated as constituting one season divided into two parts.
The people are eagerly awaiting the resumption of Parliament, especially at a time the country is reeling from a monstrous pandemic and concerned about the Chinese aggression.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 2, 2020, under the title “Unlock the House.” The writer is the leader of Congress in Lok Sabha.
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