Narendra Modi's Potemkin democracy
At the beginning of 2021, Indian legislators woke up to two realisations. Firstly, the annual winter session of parliament, from which they should just have been emerging, had not taken place at all. And, secondly, New Delhi’s magnificent parliament complex, a tourist attraction since it was built in 1927, had been turned into a construction site. These two facts sum up the reality of Indian democracy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On the one hand, the government has shrugged off the very concept of accountability to the people's representatives, the cornerstone of parliamentary democracy. On the other, Modi, an increasingly larger-than-life figure whose flowing beard and other-worldly air make him resemble the "Raj Rishis" or emperor-sages of ancient days, is doing all he can to transform the republic, physically as well as politically. India's new, grander parliament building is to arise alongside the old one, as part of his determination to leave his visible mark on the national capital.
Modi’s "edifice complex" includes plans to construct an array of new government buildings alongside New Delhi’s Central Vista, the grand sweep of which leads past parliament to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace. A new residential-cum-office complex for the vice president and the prime minister are also part of the plans. Environmentalists have obtained a stay on construction from the Supreme Court, but did not challenge the ground-breaking ceremony for the new parliament building to proceed.
Parliament curtailed, adjourned, cancelled
Parliament itself barely met in 2020. The official reason, of course, was the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the shortening of the year’s first two sessions and the cancellation of the third. Parliament sat for only 23 days in the budget session that began the legislative year, before being adjourned in March because of the pandemic. convene within six months of the end of the previous session.
The government then showed no desire to convene the monsoon session, which normally starts in late June or mid-July and continues until August. It might happily have ruled by decree, were it not for the constitutional requirement that parliament
The monsoon session was belatedly called on 14 September to meet for just 18 days with no weekend breaks. But it was abruptly adjourned after ten days, again because of the virus. And the winter session, which should normally have started in mid-November and continued until Christmas (on some occasions, it has even extended through the holiday session) simply never happened.
There is no doubt about the current dangers of 750 MPs and hundreds of officials and journalists crowding into the parliament complex. Three ministers, two dozen MPs, and several parliamentary officials tested positive for the coronavirus during the monsoon session; three MPs and a minister of state died after contracting COVID-19. But it seems absurd that a country claiming to be a world leader in information technology finds itself unable to connect its MPs virtually through videoconferencing, as so many other national parliaments have done.
Rubber stamp legislature
A national crisis is precisely the time when parliament should be meeting to discuss its cause, in this case the pandemic and how policymakers are managing it. But that appears to be exactly what the government wants to avoid. As the truncated monsoon session showed, it sees the legislature as a mere rubber stamp for decisions it has already taken. Key legislation – including hugely controversial labour and farm bills – was pushed through both houses without significant debate.
The government imposed its own priorities, ensuring that the presiding officers took up its bills (mainly those ratifying previously issued executive decrees), while deferring debate on the issues that opposition parties wanted to raise. These included the border standoff with China, during which 20 Indian soldiers were killed in June, a controversial draft Environment Impact Assessment, the government’s New Education Policy, and financial and tax compensation to state governments.
Under the previous Congress-led government from 2009-14, 71% of all bills were first scrutinised in parliamentary standing committees. Under the BJP government, that rate has decreased to 25%, and since Modi’s re-election 20 months ago, not a single bill has benefitted from such scrutiny. This sorry record includes the three farm laws whose passage sparked major protests, with angry farmers besieging the capital for months, from late 2020 onwards.
The protests again proved the utility of thorough legislative consideration before bills are passed. But the government seems to believe that its electoral mandate is all the approval it needs, with parliamentary examination and debate being a mere formality.
Who needs accountability?
Parliamentary committees have struggled to meet in recent months even after the easing of the initial draconian lockdown, because travel restrictions and quarantine rules in MPs’ home states have made it difficult to assemble a quorum. Pleas by committee chairs, including me, to connect some members virtually by secure videoconference have been rejected on confidentiality grounds.
The irony of conducting a ground-breaking ceremony for a new parliament building during the pandemic, while suspending the work that should have been taking place in the old one, was lost on the government. Even the confidentiality excuse does not apply to regular parliamentary sessions, which, unlike committee meetings, are televised. The inescapable conclusion is that the government would rather dispense with the inconvenience of being accountable to the legislature.
Such tendencies were apparent even in the shortened monsoon session, when parliament dispensed with Question Hour, the one time when MPs can demand unscripted answers from ministers. I have previously noted the Modi government's propensity to sidestep debate on important issues and use its majority to reduce parliament to a noticeboard for its decisions. This is an administration that does not like to be questioned.
India will eventually have a new building to showcase its democracy. Sadly, under Modi and the BJP, the spirit of deliberation and debate that animated the country's old parliament will be left there.
Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is an MP for the Indian National Congress. He is the author of Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.