Sahil M Parsekar
After Bharatiya Janata Party’s win in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a grand gesture on the steps of the Parliament. He bowed down to the walls of the institution and called it the “Temple of Democracy”. Seven years later, we are about to construct a new building in its stead and convert the present one into a museum.
The passing of the three farm laws – The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act and The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act – is an interesting reflection on the status of the legislature. The bills which were initially brought as ordinances had to be passed through both the Houses. However, the Modi Govt does not enjoy a complete majority in the Upper House. Therefore, to surpass debate and avoid any alternative outcome to the fate of the bills, Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Sri Harivansh Singh declared a voice vote instead of calling for division of votes. The intention is evident. There was strong opposition to the bills in the Rajya Sabha, led mainly by Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress and Sanjay Singh of the Aam Aadmi Party. The Akali Dal too were not in favour. Observing the risks of putting the bills to division, Deputy Chairman conveniently ignored protocol.
However, this is not an unprecedent event in the years of this regime. The government has time and again expressed disrespect towards legislative scrutiny. Legislative scrutiny is the idea that the government is made accountable to the legislature. Exercised through legislative discussions, question hour sessions or Parliamentary Committees, it allows the people to indirectly have a check on the government and adds to transparency in governance. The Modi govt in the past has avoided sending bills to Parliamentary Standing Committees. About 26% of the bills passed in the 16th Lok Sabha have made it to a standing committee. Moreover, in the year 2020, no bill was sent to any Parliamentary committee. Last year, the Modi govt decided to quash “Zero Hour” and “Question Hour” in the Monsoon sessions of the Parliament. Owing to the pandemic, the Winter Session was entirely cancelled. But why has this regime constantly shown indifference or rather disregard to legislative scrutiny? Because the government does not feel it necessary to be held accountable. It perfectly fits in their understanding of hierarchy – the supreme leader at the top, with the party and the government below it, and finally the legislature and other democratic institutions. Therefore, there is no place for being answerable to lower authorities in this hierarchy. In such a scenario, what is the role of the legislature? The legislature is sub-ordinate to the government. Its role is only to establish a government and let it survive the term. The government makes sure it wins a majority in the legislature, and once the legislature is occupied, the government does not require to present itself. Since the hierarchy is clear – first the leader, then the party – no members of the majority party in the legislature are at liberty to raise any questions. The legislature is then tasked to pass laws which supplement the actions of the government. So instead of having laws which guide the government, we have a government which guides the laws. The role of the legislator, particularly the ones in the majority, is reduced to mere cheering for the laws when they are being passed. Thus, the legislature is exploited to pass the will of the executive. It is ironic, because the executive is actually supposed to be the expression of the legislative, and should do everything to reflect the legislative’s will. But the traditional idea is thrown to make way for a reverse approach. Laws are merely passed, without having to reflect, discuss, debate, amend. The reason is simple – the supreme leader has sent the bill. The bills are not a deliberative of the legislature. There is no space for feedback.
In this approach, one would assume the role of the Opposition to increase. In a clear surrender by the members of the majority party to the supreme leader, the Opposition should ideally advance its critique on the government. However, there is an image that the government too has of the Opposition, and it constantly tries to capture the Opposition in that image. The government chooses the Opposition to play the enemy of the supreme leader; hence it also becomes the enemy within the legislature. The Opposition is assumed to stage an opposition to the bills, while the government would “defeat” the Opposition majestically. Since the government enjoys a full majority, there is no way that the Opposition would “win” against a bill. But the government constantly likes to remind the Opposition of the position that they hold. Though the members of the Opposition are also elected by the very citizens of this country, the government still has no regard for such an authorization. Exercising such an approach helps the government to the point that it is declared victor again and again. However, it ends a possible dialogue between the government and leaders representing people.
The decline of the status of the opposition only debars people in having any true conversation with the government. In a possible confrontation of the people with its own government, they are robbed of representation in the legislature. Haven’t we witnessed the same during the Farmers’ Protests and the anti-CAA agitation. The media, while reporting the farmers’ protests, claimed that the protests were hijacked because they received support from the Opposition. After the repeal of Article 370, the visits by Opposition leaders to the state of Jammu & Kashmir were seen as “political” acts, devoid of the fact that they were people’s representatives.
Moving back to theory, reading the three social contract theorists – Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, one might find it curious as to how they viewed the position of the government vis-à-vis the people. Hobbes, the first of the three, argued that since government was established to protect people from each other, the people are obliged to surrender their liberties to the government. The government is above, while the people are below it. Locke disagreed. Locke argues that people and the government bind each other in a contract. The government cannot exceed the limitations of the contract. Locke imagines the government and the people to be on an equal footing. For Rousseau, the government consists of nothing but employees employed by the people. Inspired by Montesquieu, Rousseau establishes the legislature as an institution where laws are made and expresses a government which only executes the will of those laws. Thus, the people are above, while the government below, serving only as an employee. Modern democracies are supposed to follow Rousseau’s model. Needless to say, we haven’t. Democracies have only allowed legislatures to be subordinate to executives, constantly being whipped by “supreme leaders”.
The reason is not difficult to trace. Electoral victories empower the “victors” to capture on the legislative. Legislatures thus become a mere tool for the Executive. Electoral politics thus blind the masses to the point that we forget why we had established legislatures. Legislatures have become the outcome of a game of numbers, divided between winners and losers. Their duty to legislate, to keep a check on the government, to provide a feedback to policies is undermined.
For the past few years, we have read several articles on the declining trust on the judiciary. We have often heard intellectuals argue that the judiciary has been compromised. We have forgotten that the first check on the government or the executive was the legislative and not the judiciary. We have imprinted on ourselves that legislatures are meant to be exploited – that the days of Nehru are gone, when members of his own party would interrogate him for hours. The crumbling of the legislature cannot be traced to the supreme leaders of the day, who might have been very much responsible for the position that the judiciary is in today. The crumbling of the Indian Legislature has to be blamed on the people who have stopped expecting from their own representatives.
Sahil is the CYSS Maharashtra President, having worked as a psephologist for the AAP in 2020 Delhi elections, studied political management and governance from MIT School of Government.