A vibrant democracy rests on a solid foundation of dissent, discussion, and debate. If this trinity is divorced from each other, democracy loses its essence and turns into a dictatorship. Our Parliament, which was established after much debate and deliberation, provides a perfect platform for dialogue among representatives of the people. Unfortunately, our parliament, these days, is in the news for the slumbering quality of debate and hasty passage of bills.
It took 2 years, 11 months and 18 days to complete the task of constitution-making. The constitution makers had gone through the constitutions of 60 countries. The draft constitution was considered for 114 days. Imagine the level of comparative analysis and time spent. No stone was left unturned while framing the sacrosanct ‘Constitution of India.’ Then why are some important Bills being passed with lightning speed? Sometimes within 5 minutes, without taking the concerns of citizens into account. Thus, it is imperative here to get an idea of the gravity of the issue.
In the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-2009), 71% of bills were sent to the select committee. In the 15th Lok Sabha, it dropped to 60% of the bills. These numbers further slid to 27% and 12% in the 16th and 17th Lok Sabhas, respectively. The select committee consists of members of the house where the bill has originated. Select committees ensure greater scrutiny of bills and also check hasty passage of bills. Usually, every bill undergoes 3 readings in each house, which presents legislators with ample opportunity to criticize the controversial provisions in a draft bill. Then where is the faultline?
The problem once again lies with the numbers. The present government enjoys a crystal clear majority. With the NDA government holding nearly 330 Lok Sabha seats, passing a bill becomes a piece of cake. This is not unique to the present government. When we run down the memory lane of political history, we find that the previous governments, which enjoyed a mammoth majority, followed the same path. If we examine the case study of the Indian National Congress from the 1950s to 1960s, we get some insights into the workings of Parliamentary Democracy.
As famously said by Granville Austin, “The Constituent Assembly was a one-party body in an essentially one-party country. The Assembly was the Congress, and the Congress was India.” Congress at that time represented nearly all the ideologies and accommodated diverse opinions in it i.e., liberals, centrists, conservatives, and communists. Hence, there was an effort to consider every view and ideology while formulating acts and rules. This does not hold true in the present situation.
In present scenario, when the political parties are divided into various ideologies, the role of opposition becomes eminent, particularly in a Westminster-based parliamentary system. Sir Ivor Jennings even goes to the extent of describing the Leader of the Opposition as an ‘alternative Prime Minister’. But the reality in India is that, at present, no opposition party has the required 10% seats to get the post of leader of the opposition. Thus, the current Opposition has become a toothless tiger. This is quite evident if we examine the following numbers.
In the 14th Lok Sabha, 33 bills were approved, with each one taking less than 5 minutes. This accounted for 18% of the total 182 bills passed during the 14th Lok Sabha. In the 15th loksabha, it was 20% of the total bills passed. Many laws passed by Parliament are increasingly being seen as unacceptable, for example, the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, Farm Laws, or the RTI(Amendment) Act 2019.
The right to information act was amended in 2019 to alter various key aspects of the law. The tenures of the chief information commissioners (CICs) and information commissioners at both the center and state levels have been reduced to three years. Their salaries are now dependent on the whims of the government in power. Controversial farm laws, which were introduced in 2020, triggered protests and drew widespread criticism for notifying without discussion. The government bowed down to protests and subsequently repealed the laws.
These instances of unacceptable and hasty passage of bills clearly indicate an ineffective and weaker opposition. The current crisis with the opposition is mainly about the absence of leadership and a lack of vision. Other than weaker opposition, there are various other factors contributing to poor quality of legislation. As cited by Subhash Kashyap in his book “Reviewing the Constitution, “ the presence of archaic practices, inadequacy of time, and lack of expertise results in poor quality of legislation.
There is also a degradation in the parliamentary processes as well as parliamentarians. This degradation is further accelerated by the fact that political parties do not select candidates on the basis of parliamentary skills. An increase in the number of legislators with criminal backgrounds is probably the biggest reason for the decline in the tradition of parliamentary proceedings.
As Socialism’s relevance lies in keeping Capitalism humane, the Opposition’s relevance lies in keeping government democratic. Strong opposition is essential for any democracy. Opposition parties need to revive themselves to remain relevant. Revival can be done by mass mobilization, spreading party ideology, and taking on issues such as corruption, environmental degradation, unemployment, poverty, and low performance in various international rankings on democracy, gender gap, press freedom, and hunger.
Using media as a tool, opposition parties can reach voters and expand their voter base. Increased electoral representation provides great bargaining power. The need of the time is that opposition parties should collaborate with each other to oppose hasty and unacceptable legislation. Providing an opportunity to able leaders, going beyond dynastic politics and adopting intra-party democracy will be a game changer in the revival of opposition parties. Intra-party democracy enables able candidates to reach parliament.
Able parliamentarians can utilize the platform more efficiently to represent unheard voices. The concept of ‘shadow cabinet’ from the British parliament can be incorporated in India. It will prepare opposition leaders for future ministerial posts.
Bills passed after debate, deliberation and accommodating diverse views result in acceptable laws and less litigation in the future as quoted by CJI N.V.Ramana. It is the responsibility of elected representatives to provide better laws for the citizens.