Many Indians were unsurprised when the current Parliament session was disrupted for five straight days last week and again at the beginning of this week owing to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition party, the Congress, locking horns over their respective demands. Such disruptions of parliamentary sessions have become so common in recent years that their ability to shock or surprise has greatly eroded.
Disrupting the Parliament is a method that opposition parties have frequently resorted to over the years, not only in India but around the world. In fact, while speaking of the wash-out of session after session during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II rule (2009-14), the BJP, which was then the main opposition party, repeatedly justified the strategy.
In 2011, for instance, the party’s leader in the upper house of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, said, “Parliamentary obstruction is not undemocratic.” The following year, Sushma Swaraj, then the BJP’s leader in the Lok Sabha, the lower house, said, “Not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy, like any other form.”
However, as the ruling party too, the BJP is stalling parliamentary proceedings.
The BJP anticipated that opposition parties would create trouble in Parliament during the ongoing session over New York-based Hindenburg Research’s revelations about Indian business tycoon Gautam Adani and his alleged proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So BJP parliamentarians have been disrupting Parliament themselves, seeking an apology from Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for allegedly “maligning the country abroad.” The BJP picked up the issue soon after Gandhi’s February 28 speech at Cambridge University, his alma mater, and Modi raked it up the day before the Parliament session was to start.
The ruling party parliamentarians have made it clear they will not allow Parliament to function until Gandhi apologizes, a possibility that he ruled out, saying criticizing a government was not the same as criticizing a country or its institutions.
The BJP has also moved to get Gandhi expelled from Parliament. The only case of a parliamentarian being expelled for allegedly defaming the House, the country, and fellow parliamentarians abroad took place in 1976, during the Emergency, one of the darkest chapters of India’s parliamentary democracy.
In fact, the stifling of opposition voices in Parliament was one of the issues that Gandhi raised during his speech at Cambridge while elaborating how “democracy is under attack” in Modi’s India. During the ongoing session, there was also the allegation that Sansad TV, which broadcasts Parliament proceedings live, was “muted” – even though the ruling party attributed it to “technical fault.”
Smooth running of the House has generally been considered the ruling party’s responsibility. The treasury bench picking up apparent non-issues to disrupt parliamentary proceedings is uncommon, globally.
However, in its bid to outperform the opposition, the BJP has set a new trend. In the monsoon session last year, the BJP created a ruckus in parliament over Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury addressing President Draupadi Murmu as Rashtrapatni instead of Rashtrapati (President).
It was quite apparent that Chowdhury, who is not a native Hindi speaker, had wrongly applied feminine gender on the gender-neutral term Rashtrapati. In fact, since pati in Hindi means husband, whether a woman president should be called Rashtrapati has been debated for over seven decades and yet remains inconclusive. But the BJP turned it into an issue of a “sexist insult” against Murmu and stalled parliamentary proceedings. During that same session, the suspension of 27 opposition MPs from the Rajya Sabha and four from the Lok Sabha for the remainder of the session was a recipe for further disruption.
The BJP has repeatedly blamed the opposition for such disruptions, while opposition parties like the Congress and the Trinamool Congress have alleged that the ruling party resorts to disruptions to avoid discussions on issues that hurt it.
What is lost in this normalization of disruptions is not only business hours — time when the elected representatives of the people are expected to raise matters involving their constituencies. It has also strengthened two worrying trends. One is that bills are being passed without a debate or with discussion involving only treasury bench members, and the other is the decreasing referral of bills to parliamentary standing committees. In the first two-and-a-half years of the current Lok Sabha, 35 percent of the bills were passed in less than 30 minutes.
The decline of the Indian Parliament – regarding the quality of debates, duration of sittings, and display of political courtesy to opponents – has been discussed for over three decades now. In 1998, University of Toronto professor Arthur G Rubinoff wrote in his analysis of 50 years of the Indian Parliament that “its role was greatest under the charismatic Jawaharlal Nehru,” but that his successors showed “disdain for the institution,” resulting in the institution’s decline “in status and effectiveness.”
“While it continues to be a ‘reactive legislature’, parliament’s role in India’s political system is more marginal than it was in the country’s early years,” Rubinoff wrote.
Another decade later, in 2009, an editorial in Economic and Political Weekly headlined “Decline or Death of Parliament?” said: “Parliament has been on a downhill course from soon after the early 1950s; we are now at a nadir.” The editorial added that the people of India were witnessing “an accelerated hollowing out of Parliament.” In fact, in 2008, during the UPA-I government led by the Congress, the Parliament passed 16 of 36 bills in less than 20 minutes each, and most of them without any debate.
Nevertheless, the worst was yet to come.
Sitting days in the Lok Sabha have reduced from an annual average of 121 days during 1952-70 to 68 days since 2000. In 2022, the Parliament sat for only 56 days. Narendra Modi’s first term (2014-19) recorded the second lowest hours of work done compared to other full-term Lok Sabhas. It was slightly better than 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14), the Congress-led UPA’s second term, which worked for the least hours.
Coming to Modi’s second term, in the 2021 Monsoon Session in July-August, according to research by the New Delhi-based non-profit PRS, “Parliament functioned for less than a quarter of the scheduled time, and several bills were passed within minutes without any discussion.” According to another report, the Rajya Sabha passed nine bills clocking 17 minutes per bill, while the Lok Sabha passed 11 bills, spending eight minutes on average on each. The Lok Sabha was scheduled to work for six hours per day for 19 days, but the House ultimately sat for only 21 hours, which is 21 percent of the scheduled time.
This was the lowest since the Winter 2016 session, when Lok Sabha worked for 15 percent of its scheduled time. That 2016 winter session was, in turn, the least productive one in 15 years.
On the first day of the 2021 winter session, 12 MPs were suspended from the Rajya Sabha for misconduct on the last day of Monsoon Session that year, setting the tone for disruption in the upper house, which eventually sat for only 43 percent of its scheduled hours.
The trend under Modi since 2014 has been worse than during the Congress rule between 2004 and 2014 on at least two counts – suspending opposition MPs and not sending bills to parliamentary committees for scrutiny.
While 51 MPs were suspended between August 2006 and February 2014, as many as 139 MPs have been suspended between August 2015 and August 2022.
With regard to parliamentary standing committees, which were formed in 1993 to scrutinize bills, the 14th and the 15th Lok Sabha (2004-09 and 2009-14) referred 60 percent and 71 percent of the bills, respectively, to parliamentary committees. However, only 27 percent of bills were referred during the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19) – the first tenure of Narendra Modi – and only 12 percent of the bills between July 2019 and August 2021. In the 2021 monsoon session, none of the 15 bills introduced were referred to a Parliamentary committee.
Notably, while the 15th Lok Sabha witnessed more disruption than Modi’s first term, the ruling Congress was hardly seen in disruptive mode. The BJP, along with regional parties, caused most of the disruptions. In Modi’s first term, it was mostly the opposition parties that caused disruptions. Now, with the ruling party joining disruption tactics, the current Lok Sabha may well be in a race to become the least-performing one.