May 10, 2015

Undermining Parliamentary Democracy

THE CPI(M)’s recently concluded 21st Congress spoke of the trident of challenges facing the country and the people. The aggressive pursuit of the neo-liberal policies of economic reforms; the relentless onslaughts on the secular democratic foundations of the Indian republic by the sharpening of communal polarisation and the movement towards an authoritarian rule through the erosion of democratic institutions and methods considered sacrosanct in a parliamentary democracy, constitute the current constellation of challenges before us. Many thought that of these the CPI(M) was being alarmist regarding the subversion of our democratic institutions and methods of functioning. This however, is now unfolding in greater rapidity by the manner in which this BJP-led government is functioning in the parliament. Using the strength of its simple majority in the Lok Sabha, albeit with a mere 31 per cent of the vote polled, the BJP is attempting to bulldoze many crucial legislations without parliamentary scrutiny and a meaningful debate. Parliamentary scrutiny is exercised by the parliamentary standing committees examining all legislative proposals, particularly crucial ones. These committees have as its members virtually the entire political spectrum represented in both the houses of parliament at any point of time. A legislation is examined by seeking to understand its effectiveness and implications over a vast section of the stakeholders who naturally have different perceptions about such a legislation and whose impact would be felt differently. This enables the standing committees to suggest fine tuning of these legislations and if necessary to suggest to the executive (government) to reconsider or redraft some legislations in order to make them either comprehensive or effective. Since this government has assumed office all crucial legislations in the Lok Sabha are being bulldozed through by exercising the BJP’s majority, what we have termed in the past as an exercise of “the tyranny of the majority”. Not one crucial legislative proposal has been referred to the standing committee by this 16th Lok Sabha. As a result, when these are brought before the Rajya Sabha, invariably they were referred to a select committee of the house for proper examination. It is normally unusual that, during the last few months, the Rajya Sabha had to constitute at least six select committees on various legislations. As we go to press, the Rajya Sabha has now referred a proposed legislation on real estate to a new select committee elected by it to scrutinise this legislation. Not content with such an anti-democratic jettisoning of parliamentary proposals, the speaker of the Lok Sabha, it is alleged, orders the switching off of microphones when opposition leaders participate in a debate or censor the proceedings of a debate to delete as uncharitable references either to the BJP government’s intentions or that of Prime Minister Modi. These are indeed ominous signals. Bypassing parliamentary procedures is the surest highway towards authoritarianism that can lead to the destruction of the democratic foundations of our republic. Combined with the communal onslaught and the aggressive pursuit of the hardcore Hindutva agenda, which seek to destroy the social harmony of our incredibly diverse society, these constitute a very grave attack on the foundations of our constitutional republican order. In order to protect itself from a Rajya Sabha (where the BJP is in a minority) scrutiny of its new legislative proposals concerning economic reforms that facilitate greater profit maximisation opportunities for foreign and domestic big capital at the expense of imposing greater burdens on our people, the BJP government tried to smuggle in such financial reforms along with the Finance Bill that was brought for adoption in the Lok Sabha. This however, was foiled by the opposition forcing the government to withdraw such proposals from the Finance Bill. The BJP is attempting to pass off any legislation that deals or relates to finances as a “Money Bill” which under our constitutional scheme of things does not require an approval or adoption by the Rajya Sabha. Such subterfuge attempts to pass off all legislations remotely connected with finance, like amendments to the RBI Act, money laundering or FEMA for example which are not money bills as defined by our Constitution. Article 110 of the Constitution defines a Money Bill in the following manner: “Definition of "Money Bills".- “(1) For the purposes of this Chapter, a Bill shall be deemed to be a Money Bill if it contains only provisions dealing with all or any of the following matters, namely:- “(a) the imposition, abolition, remission, alteration or regulation of any tax; “(b) the regulation of the borrowing of money or the giving of any guarantee by the Government of India, or the amendment of the law with respect to any financial obligations undertaken or to be undertaken by the Government of India; “(c) the custody of the Consolidated Fund or the Contingency Fund of India, the payment of moneys into or the withdrawal of moneys from any such Fund; “(d) the appropriation of moneys out of the Consolidated Fund of India; “(e) the declaring of any expenditure to be expenditure charged on the Consolidated Fund of India or the increasing of the amount of any such expenditure; “(f) the receipt of money on account of the Consolidated Fund of India or the public account of India or the custody or issue of such money or the audit of the accounts of the Union or of a State; or “(g) any matter incidental to any of the matters specified in sub-clauses (a) to (f). “(2) A Bill shall not be deemed to be a Money Bill by reason only that it provides for the imposition of fines or other pecuniary penalties, or for the demand or payment of fees for licences or fees for services rendered, or by reason that it provides for the imposition, abolition, remission, alteration or regulation of any tax by any local authority or body for local purposes…………” Though the BJP with its majority in the Lok Sabha tried such an exercise of subterfuge, it failed. The government was forced to withdraw such proposals from the Finance Bill before putting it for approval. The BJP continues to threaten that it shall summon a joint session of parliament in order to have its key economic reform legislations approved. As pointed out in these columns earlier, a joint session ie, a joint sitting of both houses of parliament can only be convened in the event that one house approves a legislative proposal and the other house rejects it. However, after approval by the Lok Sabha if the Rajya Sabha refers these bills to select committees for examination and scrutiny, no joint session can be convened until the reports of the select committees are considered and disposed off by the Rajya Sabha. This is precisely what is happening today in the parliament. The BJP cannot succeed in scoring a political point and claiming victory by propagating that the opposition is stalling key economic reforms legislations. Bypassing parliamentary procedures and circumventing democratic norms, cannot be the route for adopting legislations. A lead editorial of a national daily commented: “Clearly, the government needs to take some lessons in parliamentary democracy. If it doesn’t now reach out to the opposition, the face off will continue, to its own detriment”. (The Hindu, May 6, 2015) However, reaching out to the opposition is not the political agenda that is being pursued by the RSS and its political arm, the BJP, in government. They are relentlessly pushing towards seeking the transformation of the modern secular democratic Indian republic into their version of a rabidly intolerant fascistic “Hindu rashtra”. It is only the united will of the Indian people and stronger unity in struggles that can thwart such a design that aims to destroy India as we know it today. (May 6, 2015)