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Winter is coming

Unless government engages Opposition, Parliament will be about ordinances and obstruction.

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot
Updated: November 24, 2015 8:23:36 am
Parliament house in New Delhi on July 24th 2015. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia. Parliament house in New Delhi on July 24th 2015. Express photo by Ravi Kanojia.

The last monsoon session of Parliament was one of the most dysfunctional in Indian history, with no non-money bills passed in the Rajya Sabha, and eight bills cleared by the Lok Sabha after the speaker suspended 25 Congress MPs. None of the government’s priority bills was put to a vote in the Upper House. In fact, the Rajya Sabha could work for only 9 per cent of its allotted time, and Lok Sabha for 48 per cent, because of continuous disruptions by the Opposition. In the last five years, things have been worse only once, in 2010, when the Rajya Sabha could work for only 2 per cent of the allotted time because of disruptions by the BJP, which was protesting the 2G spectrum scandal. Clearly, the Congress was paying back the BJP in the same coin, and had the same demands: Corrupt ministers and chief ministers have to go; Parliament can only function after their resignations.

But India has witnessed additional signs of parliamentary decline under the Narendra Modi government. The cabinet system enshrined in the Constitution implies that the prime minister heads a team of ministers responsible before Parliament, an institution where debates are supposed to make democracy work. These institutions have been eroding for years, but at least more than just a couple of people were in the driving seat. In the present government, fewer ministers than in the previous one really matter.

Second, Parliament has lost its importance. While Modi described Parliament as the “temple of democracy”, he has, so far, not attended as many of its meetings per year as his predecessors. Instead of promoting inside Parliament the bills he needs passed, Modi has resorted to more ordinances than recent governments. In one year, he has issued about 14 ordinances. In contrast, UPA 2 issued only 25 ordinances (four per year). This is not only because of the NDA’s lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha. The frequent promulgation of ordinances has more to do with a managerial ethos according to which the government should deliver quickly. In that view, parliamentary work is seen as a waste of time — and the disruptions of the monsoon session, telecast on TV, might have reaffirmed this impression in the eyes of many citizens. An increasingly large minority has turned towards anti-parliamentarism, as is evident from a recent Lokniti-CSDS survey that shows that 38.9 per cent of respondents “strongly approve” or “somewhat approve” of the following proposition: “We should get rid of Parliament and elections and have a strong leader decide things.” The percentages are almost the same when “strong leader” is replaced with “the army” or “experts”.

This result-oriented brand of politics is part of the “Gujarat model”, which was to mean business in many different senses of the word. The Gujarat Assembly did not sit for more than 150 days in 2008-12 (that is, 30 days a year, on average) and 154 days during the previous legislature, in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, when it met for more than 200 days during each full term of the assembly. Similarly, as Gujarat chief minister, Modi related directly to the state bureaucracy and only a handful of ministers mattered — such as Amit Shah, who held more than 10 portfolios.

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But this trend is affecting all states, where assemblies and ministers are becoming more irrelevant. In 2014, the assemblies of Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha worked between 35 and 59 days. Some winter sessions only lasted for two to five days (in Gujarat, UP, MP and Bihar) and some monsoon sessions simply did not take place — not to say anything about super-short budget sessions (whose brevity needs to be qualified because of the role of legislative committees).

This was on par with the hyper-concentration of ministerial portfolios in the hands of chief ministers. UP CM Akhilesh Yadav gets 35 ministerial departments, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar 19 in his previous government, Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje 16, Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar 14, and Gujarat CM Anandiben Patel 13, like Kerala CM Oomen Chandy. Others, including the CMs of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, keep nine to 10 portfolios. The most collegial CM of a large state seems to be Naveen Patnaik of Odisha, who keeps only three portfolios, including home. Interestingly, most CMs retain the home ministry.

This concentration of power is a reflection of the power structure prevailing in most of the ruling parties these CMs belong to. While state leaders of the BJP and Congress have to report to the party’s heads, state parties have often become the property of one man/ woman, or even one family. How can parliamentary democracy prevail when there is no democracy within the ruling party?


Whether this arrangement is conducive to efficacy remains to be seen. But it diminishes the democratic potential of important checks-and-balances institutions. All the more so as some CMs who have a clear majority resort to ordinances. Raje is a case in point. In December 2014, her government issued two ordinances that set conditions for candidates to contest rural local body elections. The fact that these measures were taken without debate in the assembly goes against the spirit of parliamentarism.

The coming winter session of the Lok Sabha may see changes because of the BJP’s defeat in Bihar, which may make the government more interested in being a team player, since it will not get a majority in the Rajya Sabha in the foreseeable future. Indeed, if the Union government wants to defuse legislative paralysis, it will engage the Opposition and bargain. Otherwise, ordinances and obstruction will remain the order of the day. That may happen if India’s rulers want to continue to resort to ordinances and don’t mind giving a bad name to parliamentarism — or even seek to foster anti-parliamentarism.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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First published on: 24-11-2015 at 12:22:18 am
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