Modi government: By hook, by crook

A short history of how the Modi government has fared in Parliament

INDIA-NORWAY/ The Modi government has not been judicious in drafting bills that comply with judicial verdicts in letter and spirit | Reuters

Narendra Modi’s first visit to Parliament after winning the 2014 national elections was a memorable event. He knelt down and kissed the Parliament steps before proceeding to the central hall, where the BJP’s newly-elected lawmakers waited to formally declare him as the prime minister designate. 

Modi delivered a well-paced, statesman-like speech that day. He thanked the BJP elders, bemoaned the absence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and expressed gratitude to the people for having elected him to lead the world’s largest democracy. Then he reminded his colleagues of the road ahead. “We are here in Parliament, the temple of democracy,” he said. “We shall work with all purity.” Modi reminded them that the government should be above petty politics, and promised to meet them all in 2019 with a report card.

So, how has the Modi government fared in Parliament? 

Finding an answer to that warrants a look at several indicators. One solid indicator among those is legislation-related figures. Going by the number of bills passed, the Modi government has fared slightly better than the Manmohan Singh government. The tenure of the previous government saw the tabling of 236 bills, of which 121 were passed—a strike rate of just above 51 per cent. Under the Modi government, 218 bills were introduced from the monsoon session of 2014 to the last day of the winter session in January this year. Of these, 124 were passed—a strike rate of just under 57 per cent, with one more session to go before the polls. 

The Manmohan government’s best law-making year was 2010, when it converted 41 bills into acts. Its worst was 2012, when the furore over the alleged 2G scam so affected the proceedings that only 11 bills could be passed. For the Modi government, the best year was 2017—36 bills passed. The worst was last year, when just 14 bills were given assent, and more than 20 fresh bills got stuck in the legislative labyrinth. 

While the Manmohan government ended its tenure with 11 bills pending, the corresponding figure for the Modi government now is 47. The budget session would have to be unprecedentedly hectic to clear this backlog. 

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Clearly, the Modi government’s dominance in the Lok Sabha has not translated into more laws being passed. But then, legislation-related figures alone cannot give the true picture of how Parliament functioned in the past five years. A more significant indicator could be the time spent by MPs debating the bills in both houses.

In an ideal situation, after the government tables a fully-formed bill in Parliament, the MPs are supposed to examine and vigorously debate the provisions of the bill, suggesting additions, omissions, dilutions and amendments. The process is supposed to take several hours, if not days, with high chances of major bills being referred to standing committees for stricter scrutiny.

This, however, is just not happening now. Take, for instance, the monsoon session of 2017, the Modi government’s best law-making year. Fifteen new bills were introduced in that session, and none of them were referred to a standing committee. It could indicate two things—that none of the bills required closer scrutiny because they were drafted rather well, and that the debates in both houses were robust enough to fix whatever problems these bills had.  

But records of the time spent by MPs debating each of these 15 bills suggest that a majority of the bills were passed in a hurry. The passage of some major bills—like the Banking Regulation (Amendment) Bill—took less than two hours combined in both the houses. 

Q&A sessions have also been not very productive. Ministers have kept away from answering questions, with the prime minister himself keeping away from crucial parliamentary debates on demonetisation and other reforms. (Curiously, there is no data on Modi’s attendance in Parliament, either session-wise or combined.)

Apart from the statistics, a qualitative indicator is how the government has negotiated the legislative waters. The Modi dispensation fares rather poorly on that front. It has resorted to dubious means to get contentious bills passed, because of the ruling coalition’s weaker presence in the Rajya Sabha. There has been an increase in the number of money bills, which are not required to be passed by the Rajya Sabha. The most contentious such money bill was the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016. The opposition argued that the Aadhaar bill did not qualify as a money bill, which is defined as one that contains provisions for taxes, appropriation of funds, and other purely revenue-related matters. 

The Aadhaar bill had several controversial provisions, which passed muster only because the Modi government introduced it as a money bill. But late last year, some of those provisions were struck down by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court. 

The Modi government has also not been judicious in drafting bills that comply with judicial verdicts in letter and spirit. An instance is how the government framed amendments to the Aadhaar Act after the constitutional bench verdict. Two of the amendments, which were introduced in the winter session that ended on January 10, allow banks and telecom operators to continue using Aadhaar authentication. Privacy advocates say these amendments contravene the Supreme Court judgment, which explicitly prohibited use of Aadhaar by private entities. 

Critics have also accused the Modi government of drafting bills that are logically unsound. An instance is the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, which was introduced this winter session. Known as the triple talaq bill, it criminalises talaq-e-biddat, a form of instant divorce practised by Muslim men that was invalidated by the Supreme Court earlier. The government has offered no sensible explanation for the need of such a bill, which proposes to ban and criminalise a procedure that had already been legally nullified by the court. 

Apart from sloppy law-making, the Modi government has also been accused of reckless law-making. An example is the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Fourth Amendment) Bill, which was passed to provide 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education to the poor who belong to the forward castes. The bill was tabled on the last day of the winter session, and was pushed through the Rajya Sabha by extending the session for a day—that, too, without notice. 

Both the treasury and opposition benches agree that the bill was hastily drafted. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad himself described the constitutional amendment as a “slog-over six”. The “six” was passed after a nine-hour debate in the Rajya Sabha on January 9. Amid the acrimonious proceedings, a motion to send the bill to a select committee was defeated, as was three amendments proposed by opposition MPs. 

The 124th constitutional amendment is legally and logically tenuous. Experts say it would alter the basic structure of the Constitution, which does not allow for granting reservation solely on the economic criteria. It would also break the 50 per cent ceiling for reservation set by the Supreme Court. 

The amendment also does not clearly identify the potential beneficiaries of the 10 per cent reservation. The Modi government has conceded that it does not have any data on the economic status of the forward castes—other than perhaps the 2011 Socio Economic and Caste Census, the caste-related details of which have not been made public. 

(Contrast this with the 1992 legislation that gave reservation to the backward classes. The bill was tabled nearly a decade after the Mandal commission submitted its report, identifying socially and educationally backward classes in the country. The commission spent four years drafting and finalising the report, and the government sat on it till 1990.)

The 124th amendment is unlikely to stand judicial scrutiny, for it contravenes several of the Supreme Court’s earlier judgments laying down conditions for granting reservation and limiting Parliament’s power to tinker with the Constitution. 

Then why did the government railroad the bill through Parliament? To milk it politically, in all likelihood. The government may have known that the bill would never reach the implementation stage, which could be why it was drafted without doing proper homework. 

The Modi government has been violating its own promise of purity of intention by using the legislative process as a political tool. It would not reflect well on Modi’s parliamentary report card, which would be complete after the budget session in February. 

That session could well be the most eventful, as the law minister has indicated that there are several more legislative sixes to come. But if the standards set by the winter session are a sign, the Modi government is likely to go out with much sound and fury in Parliament, signifying next to nothing in terms of legislative accomplishments.