The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Did India’s Parliament Restrict Democratic Debate With Lockdown Measures? 

While the scope of legislation and debates in the Indian Parliament were reduced, these measures were temporary and lockdown-related.

Did India’s Parliament Restrict Democratic Debate With Lockdown Measures? 
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / A.Savin

The recent decision to limit the scope for legislation and debates in the Indian Parliament has been criticized by the opposition and a section of the media. The ruling coalition wants to “hide its failures,” one opposition party declared. The government says that these measures have only been introduced as part of the pandemic lockdown – to limit the time lawmakers spend together and to limit contact between them – and have nothing to do with an attempt to curtail debate in a democratic country. Which side is right?

Before the Indian Parliament’s monsoon session began, the government announced three decisions cutting traditional procedures: (1) disallowing of “private member bills,” which means that bills can now only be introduced by ministers (these are called “government bills”); (2) doing away with the “question hour,” a time when lawmakers can pose questions to ministers, and (3) limiting the “zero hour” to half of its regular time.

The second step was so controversial that the government partially walked the decision back, settling on halving the time rather than eliminating it entirely. Moreover, these 30 hours were only devoted to answering the questions in writing – meaning that the ministers would not have to present themselves physically to reply.

Are any of these changes serious enough to weaken the health of democratic debate in India?

From the perspective of law, the first change appears as bearing the heaviest consequences – but this is not so in practice. In the history of the Indian Parliament, private member bills were hardly ever voted through. It would have been no different during this monsoon session. The ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has a firm majority, and the dominant party within it, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has enough lawmakers to keep this majority by itself. The ruling side can thus have all its bills introduced by ministers while other parties cannot hope to pass through any bills anyway. Thus, while disallowing private member bills will not change the outcomes of lawmaking, it took away the opposition’s formal capability to introduce bills for the very sake of holding discussions on vital issues. This question – the scope of the debate – is what connects this change to the remaining two limitations.

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The question hour is mainly important because it lets lawmakers question the government – to direct queries to the ministers. Critics of the recent measures have pointed out that in the past that issues raised during the question hour led to the unearthing of certain scandals. These instances were very few, however. Questions posed during the question hour are typically asked in a very formal and non-combative way. The current decision to allow only the “unstarred questions” (to which written replies are provided) – and not the “starred questions” (to which ministers must reply orally and hence face follow-up questions) – certainly reduces the scope of the debate by a certain percentage. Yet, this is by no means a threat to the general freedom of scrutinizing the government’s actions. The churn – the hottest parliamentary debates – takes place when bills are being tabled, and this forum of discussion has not been closed.

The zero hour takes place after the question hour and before the rest of the proceedings. Contrary to the question hour, it allows lawmakers to raise issues and questions without much advance notice (they need to only notify the speaker on the same day). This means the zero hour is a moment to react more promptly. The time window offered gives lawmakers more space to discuss matters such as the bills that are being tabled or to direct attention to other pressing issues (for instance, a member of parliament from the state of Tamil Nadu has used the zero hour opportunity to point out the government’s inadequate reaction to the floods that hit his constituency). While the zero hour is mainly about registering various voices of concern (it can’t be used to legislate, for instance), the fact that it is much less regulated and formalized than the question hour means that it gives more scope for discussion. It has not been done away with during the monsoon session, however, only reduced by half.

It must be stressed that all these measures are presented as temporary – they were in force for the time of this monsoon session. Moreover, the session itself turned out to brief. It was planned to last for two weeks – mid-September to October 1 – but even this time was eventually cut in half in the face of rising COVID-19 cases in Delhi, including among the lawmakers themselves. This was despite the fact that special measures were taken to limit contact between people in the parliament (for instance, the two houses, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, held sittings at different times). The Indian Parliament is not in session now and most probably will not be until the winter session commences in January. 

That said, the Indian central government and parliament are indeed facing a tough choice between striving to reduce the number of infections in Delhi and reserving a suitable amount of time for effective lawmaking. The challenge will probably not to go away soon and, so far, the idea to hold online parliament sittings has been rejected. 

The above three steps – all of which were eventually in force for about a week – could have indeed been understood as part of a lockdown strategy. Thus, such solutions, if short-term and used in emergency circumstances, do not really signal a limitation to parliamentary debates as such. If one is to look for instances of the Indian ruling coalition’s avoidance of debates, these can surely be found at other levels, outside the parliament. One such field is in the media. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not appear for a single interview with journalists other than those of pro-government media who simply throw him soft balls and he did not hold a single press conference (apart from one in 2019, which he attended but did not take questions at). 

Judged by themselves, the Indian parliamentary debates of the last few years were rather lively, and sometimes even full of heat, as in the case of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill, when opposing voices were loudly heard. The matter will be much more concerning, however, if such limiting measures are reintroduced for the future full sessions, especially once the threat of the pandemic begins to wane. As of now, this seems unlikely, however.