The budget session of parliament ended on a somber note. It was another session which was washed out owing to lack of debates as the Opposition and even the treasury benches made disruptions on several occasions. According to estimates, the current tenure of Lok Sabha may turn out to be the shortest full term Lok Sabha since 1952 in terms of number of sittings.
The budget session is the longest session by virtue of number of sittings allotted for passing the budget and bills. The President’s address is an integral part as the government’s vision for the year is presented to the nation through the parliament.
The Lok Sabha in its 25 sittings could function for merely 45 hours and pass only 6 bills while 29 questions could be answered. The Rajya Sabha productivity for first part of the Budget Session was 56.3 per cent, while for the second part it plummeted to an abysmal 6.4 per cent. Cumulatively, the upper house productivity was only 24.4 per cent. Disruptions claimed 103 hours and 30 minutes of its time.
According to PRS Legislative, a think tank devoted to parliamentary research, the functioning time dropped in the second part of the Budget Session when Lok Sabha worked for 5 per cent and Rajya Sabha worked for 6 per cent of its scheduled time. Only one bill could be passed by both the houses.
As the 17th Lok Sabha entered its fourth and final year, there has been decline in business transacted. Since the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha when 38 bills were introduced and 28 bills were passed, the number of bills introduced and passed has declined. Fewer than 10 bills have been introduced or passed in each of the last four consecutive sessions, the PRS Legislative said.
The think tank said, “The 17th Lok Sabha may turn out to be the shortest full term Lok Sabha since 1952. Entering the final year of its term, the 17th Lok Sabha has functioned for 230 sitting days so far. Of all the Lok Sabhas that completed the full five-year term, the 16th Lok Sabha had the lowest sitting days (331). With one more year remaining in the term, and 58 average sitting days a year, the 17th Lok Sabha is unlikely to sit for more than 331 days. This could make it the shortest full term Lok Sabha since 1952.”
“The hallowed precincts of the Parliament are for discussions and deliberations, debates and decisions for the holistic welfare of the people. How ironical disorder in Parliament is turning out to be the new order - a new norm that decimates the essence of democracy,” Rajya Sabha chairman Jagdeep Dhankar said in his concluding remarks.
“How worrisome and alarming! Paramountcy of debate, dialogue, deliberation and discussion in Parliament has yielded to disruption and disturbance. Weaponising of politics by stalling functioning of Parliament is pregnant with serious consequences for our polity. This is to the utter dislike of the people at large. In public mind we as a class are subject of disdain and ridicule,” Dhankar said.
The strong words of caution from the Vice President who is also the chairman of the Rajya Sabha reflect the state of parliamentary democracy. However, it is not the first time that disruptions have been used as a political statement to corner the government.
The disruptions have been increasingly used in the last two decades. In 2018, the Congress-led opposition disrupted both the houses demanding probe in Rafale deal. The Lok Sabha productivity was around 15 per cent.
The parliament was stalled for several days by the opposition particularly the BJP during the UPA regime to highlight the corruption cases and scams. In 2010, the BJP demanded a JPC to probe the 2G scam. The productivity of Rajya Sabha was two per cent. In the subsequent years as UPA got caught in several other controversies and corruption allegations, pertaining to coal scam, JPC report, and even during bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, disruptions were resorted to make a point.
BJP’s senior leaders late Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley who led the party in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha had famously remarked that even disruption itself was a message. “Not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy, like any other form,” Swaraj had said. Jaitley on separate occasion had then observed: “There are occasions when obstruction in Parliament brings greater benefits to the country”.
According to experts, there has been decline in the debating and discussion culture of the parliament with veteran leaders fading away from public life. The coalition governments presented the best opportunities for debates and fiery speeches in parliament unlike when ruling parties have brute majorities.
According to the PRS Legislative, the first instance of disruption took place in 1963 when MPs first interrupted President Sarvapalli Radhakrishna’s address. Both the houses had witnessed unruly scenes when the Women Reservation Bill was brought in 1998 in Lok sabha as several members tore it. The scenes were repeated when the bill was again brought in Rajya Sabha over a decade later in 2010.
The MPs have access to several mechanisms to question the government be it asking questions, raising matters under various sections, to discussion during the parliamentary standing committee meetings. However, the most attention catching in the election dominating polity is disruption of the parliament when the proceedings are televised. The MPs and parties can get across their point to the larger public by disrupting the house. Often ruling party MPs also disrupt as a counter measure to respond to the Opposition as it happened in the just concluded session when BJP members demanded an apology from Rahul Gandhi over his remarks in a foreign country. The Opposition members were disrupting both the houses demanding a JPC in the Adani issue.
The government and experts often cite figures to talk about the economic loss for every minute lost in disruption. During the UPA tenure, then government had cited that cost of running parliament was around Rs 2.5 lakh per minute. So, the cost was huge for time lost in disruptions and not passing the bills. However, several experts and members say that parliament cannot be assessed in terms of cost analysis saying raising issues even if it were disruptions can be weighed much more than viewed through the prism of cost audit.
One of the ways to enhance the debating standards has been to increase the number of sittings of the houses so that all members get a chance to raise their point. However, for the ruling party if increasing the number sittings in a year were to translate into increased opportunities for disruption, then it means bad optics.
Last week, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to the under construction new parliament building and pictures of the house were released, several pointed out if the well of the house has been reduced in size, which means lesser space for the protesting MPs. But will there be any lesser disruptions? Unlikely.