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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The House must sit

Echo chambers aren't good at solutions. Parliament should open its doors, even virtually, to ensure all voices hear each other.

By: Editorial |
Updated: May 12, 2021 8:33:51 am
Parliament’s absence in the crisis has been marked, most recently, by Congress MP and its leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who has written a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind and the LS Speaker Om Birla, asking for a special session to discuss the response to Covid.

As the pandemic comes home across the country in mounting numbers — there are as many as 306 districts now with positivity of 20 per cent or higher — there is no one in the House. The executive and the judiciary can be seen and heard in the public health emergency — the executive, not nearly enough; the judiciary, reassuringly for helpless citizens, more and more. But the third arm of the state, the legislature, appears to be missing. Parliament’s absence in the crisis has been marked, most recently, by Congress MP and its leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who has written a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind and the LS Speaker Om Birla, asking for a special session to discuss the response to Covid. Earlier, his colleague in the Congress and Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and RS chairman Venkaiah Naidu, calling for virtual parliamentary standing committee meetings. The two senior Opposition leaders have pointed to an important stillness in a time when it is especially critical for governments to listen and learn, to correct mistakes and find the best way forward. The response to a national crisis such as this one needs to draw in all the people’s representatives, across states and whichever their party. To battle a scourge that has brought death and distress to every constituency, MPs must pool ideas and resources, ask questions and apply the check and balance. The House must reopen its doors, even if virtually, to ensure that the executive does not remain confined to echo chambers of its own making.

Other democracies across the world have found ways and means, conventional and innovative, for their parliaments to carry on meeting amid the pandemic. Some have continued to meet physically, but with restrictions. Some have shifted to virtual meetings, using technologies that allow remote working. Others, like the UK, have adopted hybrid models, a mix of members in the chamber and others participating by video conference. Many have had to modify laws and relax procedures, reset quorum rules and rearrange venues. Amid the devastation caused by the virus’s second wave in India, however, the BJP-led government shows little or no urgency for reaching out across the political spectrum inside Parliament, or indeed, outside it.

In fact, so far, it has responded with an unseemly prickliness to suggestions and interventions by Opposition leaders — former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s suggestions were promptly snubbed by Health Minister Harsh Vardhan earlier. Now BJP president JP Nadda has shot off an agitated letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi as a riposte to the CWC’s criticism of the government’s Covid response. In a shared crisis that respects no boundaries, physical or political, partisan responses are terribly inadequate, and even counter-productive. Parliament must return as the space for the wider and wiser deliberation. And for it to do so, the government must take the lead.

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