India parliament meets again amid allegations gov’t ‘undermining’ democracy

The opposition says it is convinced the government has ‘surprise legislations’ up its sleeve as it holds a special five-day session of parliament.

India New Parliament
Clouds gather over the Indian parliament building as a five-day special session starts, in New Delhi [Manish Swarup/AP]

New Delhi, India – A “special” five-day session of India’s parliament is being held amid growing disquiet in the country over parliamentary processes being undermined in the world’s most populous democracy.

In his speech on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled the 75-year history of the Indian parliament and announced that the remaining session will be held in a new parliament building inaugurated in May despite an opposition boycott.

The junior minister for parliamentary affairs, Arjun Ram Meghwal, said Monday’s session could be the last in the British-era parliament building as part of the Hindu nationalist government’s project to reject colonial legacies.

After much pushback for keeping members of parliament in the dark, Modi’s government last week released a “tentative list” of agenda items for the special session, which initially included the passage of five pieces of legislation, but later increased to eight.

India Parliament
Modi addresses media on the first day of the five-day session [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Opposition parliamentarians, however, say they are convinced the government also has “surprise legislations” up its sleeve.

At least two of the initially listed legislation are controversial – one seeks tighter government control over the press, and the other on the Election Commission of India (ECI). Indian media reports on Monday said the bill on the appointment of election commissioners will not be considered in the special session.

But the laws, if passed, could have a bearing on the general elections, due by April, in which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will seek a third term.

Toying with Bharat, ‘One nation, one election’ ideas

In the run-up to the 2024 polls, the opposition parties, led by the Indian National Congress, have jointly put up a “fight for saving democracy” under an umbrella alliance, named INDIA – the acronym for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.

Speculations are rife that the government is contemplating changing India’s official name to just Bharat, thereby discarding its European counterpart. The idea is seen as part of the BJP’s broader narrative aimed at “decolonising” Indian minds and pushing for the dominance of the Hindi language.

The idea quickly elicited a divided response in the country, mostly along political lines. Many believe it is simply a gimmick, aimed at igniting nationalist sentiments, dividing and polarising voters before the elections.

Meanwhile, Modi’s government is toying with the idea of holding simultaneous elections at the federal, state and local levels. The “One nation, one election” idea, with all its practical difficulties, has come under fire from the opposition which has termed it “undemocratic” and a “threat to federalism”.

“The one election idea bypasses the federal structure of the country,” Priyanka Chaturvedi, an opposition member of parliament, told Al Jazeera.

“The government disregards the non-feasibility of the proposal. The idea has more to do with changing the electioneering process of the country in the hope that it will help consolidate their [BJP’s] power,” she said.

Later this year, five states – Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in the north, Telangana in the south and Mizoram in the northeast – will go to polls, which are being seen as a precursor to next year’s national elections.

The government has already introduced a bill that challenges a recent Supreme Court judgement which called for more independence for the ECI ahead of the polls.

In its March 2 judgement (PDF), the top court expressed its concern over the lack of a system to ensure the three members of the commission are appointed through a transparent and independent process.

To address the issue, the court temporarily established a committee comprising the chief justice, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to oversee the appointments until a new appointment process is established by parliament.

However, the government’s proposed bill omits the chief justice and substitutes it with a nominated cabinet minister, thereby granting the government a decisive vote over the selection of the members of the poll panel, thus disregarding the Supreme Court judgement.

“The intent of the Supreme Court’s judgement was to insulate the Election Commission from executive control. The proposed committee would defeat the spirit of this judgement,” New Delhi-based lawyer Sanjoy Ghose told Al Jazeera.

Misusing ‘brute majority’ in parliament

Although the tentative agenda list for parliament’s special session does not hint at any prospective legislation on changing the name of the country or the one-election idea, Modi’s government is known to blindside the opposition with unexpected legislative actions.

On August 5, 2019, Modi’s government took parliament by surprise when it introduced a bill to revoke the partial autonomy and statehood of India’s only Muslim-majority state, the Indian-administered Kashmir.

The preceding night, a curfew and communications blackout was imposed in the disputed region and thousands of people, including former chief ministers, were put under house arrest to preempt protests against the move.

The Supreme Court is yet to pronounce its judgement on the constitutional validity of the abrogation after it concluded hearing challenges earlier this month.

A common thread running through these events is the mounting criticism of Modi’s government for its perceived undermining of democratic institutions, including parliament, and disregard for established processes.

India New Parliament
A statue of Mahatma Gandhi stands next to India’s new parliament building [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

Opposition leaders have repeatedly attacked the BJP for employing its “brute majority” in parliament to rush through key legislation without the due diligence of comprehensive and informed debate.

The BJP and its allies command a comfortable majority with 303 members in the 543-seat lower house of parliament and a thin majority in the upper house, relying on support from non-coalition “friendly” parties.

As a result, critics believe that India’s Parliament, tasked to keep an oversight on the political executive, is failing in its democratic role.

“In the past four years, we have seen a worsening trend in parliamentary functioning that seems beyond repair,” Deepanshu Mohan, professor of economics and director of the Centre for New Economics Studies at OP Jindal Global University, told Al Jazeera.

Drawing comparisons between the BJP’s first government in India from 1999 to 2004, and Modi’s term since 2014, Mohan found a “huge departure” from the party’s own confidence in the democratic process and legislative scrutiny of the bills.

“When there is greater trust in the process of legislative scrutiny and democratic due process of parliamentary approval, like during the 1999-2004 BJP government, you will notice that it has positive implications on the government’s performance. A lot of great things were achieved back then and the government performed better economy-wise,” Mohan said.

This perceived failure in parliamentary oversight is reflective of broader concerns about India’s democratic backsliding on the global stage.

Declining rankings in global indices, such as plummeting press freedom and being labelled as an “electoral autocracy” and a “partly free country” spotlight the concerns regarding the democratic credentials of Modi’s government.

Ineffective parliament?

In the monsoon session of parliament that ended last month, the government passed several crucial bills and plans more such legislation in the upcoming sessions before the elections.

Experts say many of these laws could further stifle free speech, increase the state’s control over citizens, and negatively affect other fundamental rights.

More alarmingly, several of these laws were passed with little to no debate and consultations, with the opposition not given the opportunity to challenge them or suggest amendments.

For instance, the monsoon session of parliament this year was one of the least productive but it saw one of the highest numbers of bills securing parliament’s approval, with the lower house of parliament spending just 14 hours to pass 22 bills, according to a report in The Indian Express newspaper.

Each bill was discussed for an average of only 40 minutes, with some being passed after only two or three minutes of discussion. In the upper house, where the government has a thin majority, 10 of the 25 bills passed by it saw less than an hour of discussion, said the report.

In recent years, the parliamentary sessions have been increasingly marred by protests and demonstrations by the opposition MPs over issues they said had a national importance and deserved more discussion in parliament.

However, Modi’s government has resisted debates in parliament that could highlight its shortcomings. Instead, it has used the chaos during protests to rush through legislation without discussion.

In the monsoon session, the opposition wanted a debate on the ongoing ethnic violence and humanitarian crisis in the northeastern state of Manipur. They demanded that Modi, as the leader of the lower house, should make a statement on the matter.

However, not only did the government resist a debate on Manipur for days, Modi also stayed away from parliament for almost the entire session until he was forced to attend to defend a no-confidence motion brought against his government by the opposition.

“We have a situation where the creation of chaos is acting in the favour of the government in power. It gives the government the opportunity to get a bill passed with no substantial discussion in very little time,” academic Mohan said.

Chaturvedi, the opposition MP, blames the government’s parliamentary affairs minister whose job, she said, is to find a consensus and middle ground.

“They have absolutely no intent to do so. The government’s attitude reflects its inability to engage in a democratic process of dissent, disagree, and decide. We have seen treasury benches sloganeering and creating ruckus to disrupt parliament. The stalemate suits them, the disruption helps them,” she told Al Jazeera.

‘Sheer display of majoritarianism’

Even the review of legislation by parliamentary committees, which are supposedly bipartisan closed-door bodies that discuss and deliberate a bill, has taken a hit under the present government.

A December 2019 study by PRS Legislative Research, an independent research institute, revealed that such consultations have drastically decreased.

During Modi’s first term from 2014 to 2019, only 27 percent of proposed legislation were referred to parliamentary committees, as against 60-70 percent under the previous Congress-led governments from 2004 to 2014.

In August 2021, then-Chief Justice of India NV Ramana lamented the “sorry state of affairs”, saying the laws now suffer from a lack of clarity due to a lack of deliberations, creating in turn a lot of litigation and inconvenience for the judiciary.

“Parliamentary standing committees are an important tool and mechanism to ensure that every bill passes scrutiny as well as have a multi-stakeholder discussion,” Chaturvedi told Al Jazeera.

“This government has over the years chosen the ordinance route or undermined the long-established procedure of routing decisions via standing committee,” she said. “They get away through the sheer display of majoritarianism.”

Rahul Gandhi, a senior leader of India's main opposition Congress party
Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi arrives at the parliament after he was reinstated as a member [File: Reuters]

Academic Mohan also thinks the government is less concerned with “critical reflection of what the implications of a proposed legislation are”.

“It is rather more interested in just getting access to a legislative seal of approval for what it has already resolved to do,” he said.

Mohan feels not only have parliamentary discussions and scrutiny of legislation suffered but there has also been a decline in the quality of answers provided by the ministers to questions posed by the MPs regarding specific bills.

“When ministers are asked for written answers to questions on specific bills, many responses are not in direct response to the question itself. They respond with facts that are completely different or divergent from the question being asked,” he said.

He said the level of debates in parliament is reflective of the bias the speaker, who usually belongs to the governing party, has against the opposition. The speaker is required to be unbiased and is primarily responsible for allocating time and space to the opposition voices in parliament.

The BJP, on its part, blames the opposition for parliament’s declining productivity.

“The opposition’s work is only to oppose,” BJP spokesperson Prem Shukla told Al Jazeera. “They are irresponsible and do not have the intention or capability to debate. That is why they create chaos.”

Barrage of legislation despite chaos

Some of the laws passed in the recent parliament sessions have met with severe criticism for allegedly undermining India’s federal structure.

Those include a bill curtailing the powers of the national capital territory Delhi’s democratically elected government – led by an opposition party – in its control over bureaucrats serving within the state administration.

The law goes against a recent unanimous judgement of the Supreme Court which held that only Delhi’s elected government had the authority over civil servants in the state.

“Federal government-controlled bureaucrats are not accountable to Delhi’s elected government, and in turn, Delhi’s people,” Reena Gupta, a lawyer and adviser to the Delhi government, told Al Jazeera.

“Work on major projects and schemes has been impacted by bureaucrats’ noncooperation, which is leading to an unhealthy situation in Delhi. The BJP government in the centre has not only dishonoured people’s mandate but also broken the well-established constitutional scheme of triple-chain of accountability,” she said. “The Delhi bill is a case of daylight robbery of people’s will.”

Modi’s government also passed a data protection law that has been widely criticised for doing little to ensure the right to privacy of an individual.

According to experts, the law grants the government and its agencies broad exemptions from provisions of the law, encourages low accountability, and diminishes transparency.

“The law does not offer adequate protections to Indians, as one would expect from a data protection law,” Tanmay Singh, senior litigation counsel at digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, told Al Jazeera.

“It appears, instead, to encourage the commercial value of data processing. This is not in consonance with the judgements of the Supreme Court. There were several shortcomings in the government’s consultation process and consultation responses have not been made public by the ministry concerned,” he said.

The government is also accused of diluting the Right to Information Act which provides for a transparency framework in public institutions.

Critics condemned the government for watering down the legislation, which has helped in unearthing scores of corruption cases and ensured government accountability.

Another bill that made it past parliament with almost no debate was the controversial Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, ignoring the demand for its withdrawal by hundreds of eminent ecologists, who said it would severely affect India’s biological diversity and forest-dwelling communities.

The attempts by the opposition MPs to corner the government over the passage of these laws did not succeed.

On the last day of the monsoon session, Home Minister Amit Shah introduced three criminal law reform bills that propose an overhaul of the existing colonial-era criminal law codes. The bills have been sent to a parliamentary committee for review, with a three-month timeline for submission of the final report.

There are concerns about the effect of legislation on civil liberties, human rights and the justice system. Many believe the new codes do not address longstanding issues with the existing penal codes. Worse, they would unsettle centuries-old criminal jurisprudence while further burdening an already strained criminal justice system.

“The laws have not been thought through, there is no substantive change,” lawyer Ghose told Al Jazeera.

“We are dealing not with any ordinary law, but with basic criminal statutes. It has been in place for years, affecting the lives and liberties of so many people. It is a statute familiar to law enforcement agencies, lawyers, judges, and to suddenly upend the whole thing solely for the sake of change must be viewed with a degree of circumspection,” he said.

Calling the bills a case of “old wine in a new bottle”, Ghose gave an example of how the law against sedition, a colonial-era offence widely used against political dissenters and journalists, has been brought in through the backdoor in the new bill despite the Supreme Court putting a stay on its in 2022.

The opposition says it is worried the government is bypassing the consultation and deliberation process, their fears compounded by recent statements by Home Minister Shah that suggest the BJP’s resolve to expedite these bills in parliament before next year’s elections.

“There is no earth-shattering hurry why we must rush with these new codes. There should be more open deliberations and consultation, as the government had done with labour codes,” Ghose said.

In another move that could further lower India’s already falling Global Press Freedom ranking, the government introduced a bill that seeks to regulate newspapers, periodicals and books by widening state powers and adding more “intrusive checks” on the functioning of newspapers and magazines.

The Editors Guild of India, a non-profit organisation of journalists and editors, termed the bill “draconian and arbitrary”.

As the government pushes through contentious bills, it has also moved to ban several social media posts and accounts critical of the dispensation.

It is not just citizens. The government has gagged even parliamentarians, keeping them from asking questions, and has expunged parts of speeches made by the opposition MPs inside parliament.

Source: Al Jazeera