India’s Opposition-free Parliament
India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has formally rolled out the era of the “opposition-mukt” (opposition-free) parliament.
At the just-concluded winter session of parliament, 146 opposition MPs from both houses of parliament were suspended for demanding answers from the government.
This is the highest number of suspensions in India’s parliamentary history. About 20 percent of the strength of each house has been suspended. Incidentally, the BJP government used the situation to swiftly pass important legislation, including the three Criminal Law bills without facing any objection from the opposition benches. It also helped to reduce the government’s accountability to parliament with 264 questions raised by the suspended opposition MPs being deleted from the Question Hour in each house.
The Question Hour enables members of parliament to hold the government, i.e. the executive, accountable for its governance and functioning.
The winter session started with high drama in early December, when outspoken Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra was expelled on the grounds of “ethical misconduct,” a charge that she alleged was fabricated for being a fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his crony capitalist friend Gautam Adani. This galvanized the entire INDIA opposition bloc of MPs, including former Congress President Sonia Gandhi, to rally behind Moitra, hold a protest march at the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in parliament, and accuse the Modi government of “murdering democracy.”
On December 13, which marked the 22nd anniversary of the horrific attack on the Indian parliament building, there was a major security breach wherein two youths jumped into the chamber of the lower house from the public gallery and released yellow smoke canisters while raising anti-government slogans. They were accompanied by four other protestors outside the house.
Angry at the government’s attempts to downplay the incident, opposition members demanded a statement from Home Minister Amit Shah and the government to allay their concerns. With the government refusing to accede to their demand, non-BJP MPs resorted to protests and sloganeering. This led to adjournments in both houses. Between December 14 and 21, 100 MPs were suspended from the Lok Sabha (the lower house) and 46 from the Rajya Sabha (the upper house).
Reacting to the arbitrary suspensions, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin said: “Is crushing MPs’ freedom of expression the new norm in our Parliament?” Parliament must be a “forum for debate” and not for “silencing the Opposition,” he added.
The arbitrary manner in which the MPs were suspended is evident from the fact that DMK parliamentarian S.R. Parthiban was suspended although he was not present in the house. After he revealed that he was on sick leave, Parthiban’s suspension was revoked.
The incident underscores how far the Modi government is willing to go to silence opposing voices — both within and outside parliament.
The Modi government was quick to utilize the absence of the opposition members to ram through legislation. It included at the last moment legislations of its choice through the Supplementary Agenda. As a norm, each house’s list of business is stipulated in advance so that MPs can prepare themselves on the matter. Only critically important items are notified through the Supplementary Agenda, which is published after the day’s sitting has begun. So not only were newly introduced bills passed but several bills pending from previous sessions were also cleared by notifying it in the Supplementary Agenda. Opposition MPs are supposed to act as the checks and balances on the government, and they often insist on sending bills to Select Parliamentary Committees for detailed scrutiny. The bills that were passed in this session, were passed by voice vote with only MPs of the ruling BJP and its alliance partners present in the house.
Not a single bill was referred to any committee for scrutiny during the current session of parliament. It would not be inaccurate to state that India’s parliament has been reduced to a rubber stamp of the government.
The critical decision to replace the 160-year-old criminal law system of the country was taken in the absence of opposition parliamentarians.
Home Minister Shah hailed the three criminal law bills for replacing British colonial law with a “distinctly Indian imprint.” In a single day, parliament passed the Bharatiya Nyay Samhita replacing the Indian Penal Code, the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita replacing the Code of Criminal Procedure, and the Bharatiya Sakshya Sanhita replacing the Indian Evidence Act.
Several opposition MPs had critiqued the bills as being unconstitutional. Senior lawyer and MP Kapil Sibal slammed the government for bulldozing the bills and said this would “bring dictatorship.” For instance, terror-related offenses in India are governed by special anti–terror laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act UAPA. They have been included now as an offense under the new criminal law legislation and their definition has been critiqued for vagueness, prompting Sibal to raise apprehensions over the potential for violation of human rights.
With 303 MPs in the 543-member lower house, the BJP-led government enjoys a brute majority in parliament. This has further enabled the government to get its legislative business done seamlessly with minimal objections.
Incidentally, the government’s highhanded behavior vis-à-vis the opposition MPs has helped cement the INDIA bloc.
Following the state assembly elections last month, there was much bitterness amongst the opposition alliance members with even the future of the bloc being questioned. But when alliance partners were suspended and their voices muzzled in the winter session, it bonded them together more strongly.
At its fourth meeting which was held against the backdrop of these suspensions, the INDIA bloc’s 28 parties passed a resolution declaring the suspensions to be “undemocratic.” Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge lashed out at the “autocratic BJP” for its “suspend, throw out and bulldoze” tactic to destroy democracy.
Significantly, the winter session was the penultimate session of parliament, before the country votes in general elections next year. So it is not surprising that the Modi government was keen to push through its agenda before it faces the voters in 2024. With opposition MPs out of its path, it was able to bulldoze its agenda.
Ironically, when the Modi government inaugurated the new parliament building in May, amid much fanfare, it hailed it as the “temple of democracy.” A few months down the line, it is evident that parliament’s soul had long ago been sucked out.