Commentary: India shows how not to hold a parliament session
The country's highest legislative body may be reduced to a noticeboard for government decisions, says Shashi Tharoor.
NEW DELHI: After a nearly six-month hiatus, the Indian parliament has reconvened at a time of deepening national crisis. But I fear that it may be unable to hold the country’s failing government to account.
Parliament is obliged to meet now, because India’s constitution limits the gap between sessions to six months, and the COVID-19 pandemic has forced all sessions to be suspended since March.
With 4.5 million cases to date, India is now the world’s second worst-affected country, surpassing Brazil and Russia and behind only the United States.
Moreover, infection rates are rising, especially in rural areas where testing had not been adequately extended earlier.
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TROUBLE BREWING AT HOME AND ABROAD
Fortunately, the COVID-19 mortality rate remains relatively low, at 55 per million people, representing just 1 per cent of deaths from all causes.
But if lives have not ended, livelihoods have, owing to ineffective lockdowns introduced in March. India's GDP collapsed by 23.9 per cent year-on-year in April to June, making India the world’s worst-performing major economy.
Unemployment is rife – some 21 million salaried jobs have been lost during the pandemic, and millions more in the informal sector, especially among day labourers, who are now unable to make ends meet.
Small and micro enterprises are being shuttered throughout the country. And the millions of migrant workers who trudged home in despair during the lockdown have found themselves no better off in their home villages’ stagnant economies.
A much-hyped fiscal stimulus turned out to be less than one-tenth of the size that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed, and failed to alleviate nationwide distress. The budget adopted just before the lockdowns is in tatters, its every assumption rendered irrelevant.
As if all this weren’t bad enough, a major crisis has erupted on the country’s disputed border with China, where 20 Indian soldiers were brutally killed in June in the icy Himalayan heights of Ladakh.
READ: Commentary: China's boundary skirmishes with India have wider economic and geopolitical implications
Talk of disengagement has failed to translate into withdrawals, and both sides have sent reinforcements to the tenuous Line of Actual Control that divides their forces.
This week, the two countries’ foreign ministers announced a new agreement to disengage, although it remains to be seen whether this will be realised.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has stepped up its cross-border militancy in Kashmir, which is seething with unrest following last year’s clampdown by Modi’s government. Many increasingly fear that India may be facing a two-front war before the year is out.
AN EXTRAORDINARY SITTING
All this should normally make for a lively parliamentary session. But the legislature will itself meet in abnormal and straitened circumstances, reflected in the extraordinary measures announced in advance of the session.
No MP may enter the premises without a COVID-negative certificate from a test administered within three days of the session. Inside, social distancing will apply in the usually cramped chambers, with MPs distributed throughout the upper and lower houses and the visitors’ galleries.
As a result, the two houses will take turns meeting for a half-day each in sessions lasting four hours instead of the usual six, and on all seven days of the week rather than the traditional five.
Worse, the government and the presiding officers have decided that, given the shorter sessions, they will dispense with Question Hour, the only opportunity for MPs to demand unscripted answers from ministers on a variety of subjects.
In response to the outcry, the government has agreed to accept written questions two weeks in advance, to which ministers will provide written answers.
Suspending Question Hour is typical of a government that abhors being questioned. Modi has not held a single press conference in India in his six years in office, and is notorious for granting interviews only when the questions are pre-approved.
Protesters questioning the government in the streets are charged with sedition, and critics are denounced as anti-national. A prominent lawyer who tweeted his objections to recent Supreme Court decisions was convicted of criminal contempt.
MASKING AND DENYING FAILURE
The official response to failure is denial, as with Modi’s recent claim that India had lost no territory to China, despite satellite pictures and evidence on the ground that clearly indicate otherwise.
Meanwhile, China has gleefully seized on this statement to deny that it has encroached on over 1,000 sq km of land.
Parliament therefore has a vital job on its hands, but many MPs fear that it will be unable to do it.
The government may use its crushing majority to pass the bills it wants, particularly those converting a dozen ordinances or executive orders issued during the last six months into law.
The visible measures necessitated by the pandemic – face masks, greater distance between MPs, and plastic partition screens – may not be all that is different about this parliamentary session.
There is a genuine risk that while India will honour the outward forms of parliamentary process, the spirit of debate, discussion, disagreement, and deliberation will be missing.
Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is an MP for the Indian National Congress.