After President Pranab Mukherjee, it is now Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan who has cautioned against the repeated and knee-jerk use of ordinances. Speaking at a conference in Lucknow, she said, “Ordinances should be kept to the minimum as far as possible. They have a very limited life and need to be passed by Parliament to become a law.”
In recent days, the BJP-led government has sought to brazen it out and issue a series of ordinances. It is threatening to browbeat Parliament, even call repeated and frequent joint sessions of both houses, to ram through bills and legitimise its ordinances.
There are many well-qualified lawyers who serve in this government. I am sure they have done their homework and will reach a position that is legally correct and validated by technicalities. But is it validated by the larger morality of democracy? Law-making is not diktat; it is arrived at after a process of deliberation. It is the government’s job to win enough allies and friends in the Rajya Sabha, where it is in an abysmally small majority. Or it is obligated to tailor and amend the draft bill so that it reflects the hopes and aspirations of the majority of members of the house.
To seek this route is not heresy. Members of the Rajya Sabha reflect the legislative strength of state assemblies. As such, they are as representative of our federal structure as members of the Lok Sabha. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came in promising a better deal for states and a more enlightened approach to federal relations. His over-reliance on ordinances, rejecting the misgivings of state governments and regional parties on key issues such as FDI in insurance and land ordinance, doesn’t sit well with his commitment.
Consider the sequence of events. A slew of economic ordinances were promulgated at the end of December. The winter session had gone badly for the government. The political mood in the country had changed, with hotheads and bigots from the BJP’s sister organisations and wider ideological family resorting to wild, reckless and provocative actions that threatened social harmony in our country.
To top it all, the business community, as well as ordinary people, from their different vantage positions, were beginning to wonder when this government would end its event management series and get down to actually fixing the economy. Finally, the government was obliged to “do something” before President Barack Obama’s visit lest the BJP’s American associates should feel unhappy.
The government responded with the ordinances and by spreading the propaganda that a handful of bills, some of them objected to in the Rajya Sabha by opposition parties such as the Trinamool Congress, were holding up economic development in the country. Was and is this a fair charge? Are new laws and legislative initiatives all that stand between India and high GDP growth?
There are so many things in the government’s domain―including appointment of chief executives to numerous public sector undertakings, cleaning up the tax office, and sorting out the non-performing assets and bad loans of banks―that have nothing to do with parliamentary approval. Has the government shown urgency on these matters in the past eight months?
The ordinances have become a convenient and diversionary tool to hide all that the government itself has not achieved, and to mask its failures. Unfortunately, by taking to them so often and reducing them to a political statement rather than what they should be―an emergency provision granted by the Constitution, to be used with care―the government is mocking Parliament.
O'Brien, a renowned quizmaster, is chief whip of the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha and its national spokesperson.