You say the words ‘Indian Parliament’ and a commonly caricatured image of legislators throwing papers, mics, etc in the Parliament House may come to mind. However, this is a gross trivialisation of the Indian Parliament and its power. Be it the addition of the compensation clause for states to the GST bill or using the no-confidence motion to test the strength of the incumbent government in numbers, the Indian Parliament has wielded its power on many occasions.
Such instances have reaffirmed the parliament’s position as the paramount institution in our democracy, as it is empowered to keep checks on the government through debates and deliberations. In a way, the parliament may be seen as the metaphorical ‘Betaal ‘to the ‘Vikram’ that is the Executive, asking tough questions and holding the government accountable for its actions.
Parliament’s ‘Functioning’ During COVID-19
In a parliamentary polity, the parliament is supreme – as it represents the will of the people. Currently, the world is facing a pandemic and governments are tasked with tackling a three-pronged crisis: of health, economy and society. Against this backdrop, the parliament is supposed to play a critical role in formulating policies, passing emergency laws, deciding the expenditure priorities and scrutinising Executive action, while keeping the concerns of the diverse population in mind.
The Indian parliament was adjourned sine die on 23 March 2020, soon after the onset of the pandemic in India, to prevent contagion, and it hasn’t convened even once since then.
The adjournment came at a time when the need for direction from the government on containment, public health measures, economic activities, etc was heightened due to the uncertainty of the situation.
As the Executive took the driving seat, the parliament watched the policy response from the sidelines as the president promulgated 13 ordinances post-23 March to enact legislations to execute the relief package, and the financial relief package was rolled out without any parliamentary debate and scrutiny.
Had these legislations been enacted through bills tabled in in the parliament for discussion, a representative legislature would have been able to weigh in on the concerns of the various constituents, especially the migrants, unorganised sector, informal workers, etc – who were impacted by the disorder that followed many government announcements.
Advancing A Flawed Defence
There is a line of argument that convening parliament to discuss and debate the pandemic response will be time-consuming and that situations like COVD-19 require a quick turnaround. It is true that discussing and debating a financial relief package in parliament could have been time-intensive. However, it would have allowed the representatives to raise key issues such as the impact of fiscal packages on revenue and expenditure heads of the budget, mechanisms to improve delivery of relief measures, etc.
A deeper deliberation in parliament would have led to a more optimal and inclusive policy response to the pandemic.
The Indian Parliament has been in a dormant state since the physical gathering of legislators has been dismissed, and online meetings have not taken place due to the fear of security breach on virtual meeting platforms. It is noteworthy that despite being faced with the same limitations, legislatures across the world have met online as well as physically, maintaining social distancing norms to discuss their response to the pandemic.
The US Congress deliberated for 4-5 days on the financial response and it announced a USD 20 trillion relief package.
Similarly, leaders across Europe met across 30 days to finalise their policy responses instead of driving it solely through bureaucrat-led plans, and finally came up with a recovery plan of USD 800 billion. There were negotiations, deadlocks, reconciliation –– and their final policy response had relief measures catering to all constituents.
The Opposition plays an important role in ensuring that the Legislature is able to keep checks and balances on the government, and the best way to do that is by seeking answers on the floor of parliament.
During the India-China border escalation in 1962, the Opposition demanded a special session of parliament to be convened, and the incumbent government agreed to that.
Currently, not just the parliament but also most of the parliamentary standing committees have been non-operational. Surprisingly, the opposition parties have kept their distance from the parliament and missed the opportunity to voice citizens’ concerns such as public health strengthening, Aarogya Setu’s data privacy, and status of state financing – thereby not being successful in putting the Executive’s actions under the scanner.
Our Parliamentary System Must Evolve Amid A Pandemic
As the parliament was suspended sine die, there was no clear way forward laid out on how and when it would be convened again. While no rules exist for holding a parliamentary session during emergencies, there are enabling provisions in the Constitution which could have been leveraged to convene the parliament in a unique setup (example: virtual, hybrid, etc) which is in consonance with the COVID-19 prevention guidelines.
As the conversation around holding monsoon sessions for the Indian Parliament gains momentum, India can look at its international counterparts to decide its modus operandi.
However, as the pandemic is not a short term situation – we urgently need to evolve our parliamentary systems to ensure they can remain functional in the days to come. While we can go the online, physical or hybrid route, in order to prepare for unprecedented situations in the future – which require national-level deliberation – consideration should be given to equipping and digitally up-skilling our MPs at the earliest.
While the deliberation on convening the parliamentary sessions continues, parliamentary committees should be optimised to the extent possible, so that MPs can continue to discuss policy matters and raise pertinent questions to the government – even outside the precincts of the Parliament House.
To cater to the operational challenge, an ad hoc committee with multi-party representation can be constituted by the Executive, to decide a clear SOP for the parliamentary sessions.
To cater to the policy and legislative challenges, another ad hoc committee to discuss COVID-19 related matters can be installed. In time, it could be converted into a standing committee as well, in view of the long-term mitigation strategies that would be required for COVID-19.
We Must Not Forget Why We Chose The Parliamentary System
All said and done, the government should convene parliament as soon as possible as there are a lot of issues which require urgent attention. Firstly, there is a large section of the population which has been devastated by the pandemic and are on the brink of being pushed into poverty. The government should present revised budgetary numbers in the parliament after factoring in the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. Further, Banking and Non Banking Financial Companies are expected to witness a big surge in Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) once the moratorium ends. The government should also discuss the policy measures to revive the economy and recapitalise Public Sector Banks.
Our forefathers chose the parliamentary system over the presidential system, as it is more representative. We should strive to achieve it in its letter and its spirit.
(Manmeet Singh is a Public Policy Graduate from National Law School of India University (NLSIU) and is currently working as an Assistant Manager, Public Policy in a leading manufacturing firm. Geetika Ahuja is working as the Deputy Manager, Chief Minister's Good Governance Associates programme, Haryana and also serving as a United Nations fellow. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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