On 20 May 2014, the then newly elected Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, stepped into the Parliament for the first time, bowed down in front of it, his forehead touching the ground, and registered his respect for the Parliament by calling it the “temple of democracy”.
The Parliament truly is the temple of democracy. It enjoys legal sanctity and is the locus of the aspirations of 1.4 billion Indians. But no parliament across the globe can survive the test of democracy when procedural changes are transmuted in such a way that it inclines towards the interests of the ruling regime. The most recent example of this came through notifications by the secretaries of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, curtailing the Question Hour and the Zero Hour in the upcoming monsoon session, which is scheduled to commence from 14th of September.
The Question Hour is the liveliest hour and the most visible face of the Parliament, which parliamentarians use to ask questions to the concerned ministries. It has been successfully used to fetch data from the government to present it in the public domain and even expose scams and financial irregularities. The Zero Hour, which has witnessed organic growth, is used by the MPs to raise issues of urgent public importance.
A common quote attributed to John Pym, one of the earliest architects of parliamentary democracy, says, “A Parliament is that to a commonwealth which the soul is to the body. It behoves us therefore to keep the facility of that soul from distemper”. Within the Indian Parliament, the Question Hour and the Zero Hour keep this soul alive. These instruments of accountability keep the spirit of democracy alive by keeping the executive accountable to the legislature.
It is jarring to see that the government has cited the pandemic as a reason to curtail these two sessions. This procedural modification will obliterate the Parliament as a forum for the transaction of government businesses and as a platform for people to ask questions to the executive through their elected representative. The Question Hour, being the first part of every sitting of the Parliament is a means to sense the “pulse” of the nation. Its curtailment brings into question the entire significance of parliamentary proceedings.
With the continuous rage of COVID-19, the largest quarterly contraction of the economy in several decades and the ongoing border disputes with China, the government needs to answer tough questions to the people. For the cramped up opposition, this is a precious space that needs to be protected and even extended but the new arrangements have only desecrated the powers of “temple of democracy”.
Following criticism, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi announced that unstarred questions will be allowed. But the opposition has held that verbal debates and the provision for supplementary questions—not allowed for in unstarred questions—is necessary.
This procedural modification is not the only evil that lingers on the spirit of the Indian Parliament. The deteriorating quality and participation in parliamentary and state assembly debates is a loss of face, not just for the ruling parties but for the sluggish oppositions as well. According to data, 13% of the scheduled time was lost due to adjournments in the 14th Lok Sabha, 37% in the 15th Lok Sabha and about 16% in the 16th Lok Sabha. The 16th Lok Sabha worked for 1,615 hours, which is 40% less than the average of all full-term Lok Sabhas.
We have seen important legislative business such as the passing of important bills being done with very little deliberation or scrutiny. When we see our representatives debating on things such as the demand for arms licenses for Brahmins, it must make us think about our role as citizens in the world's largest democracy.
Such parliamentary practices are against an idea and vision of the Parliament that sees it not only as a legislative body but as a deliberative body as well. In contemporary times we, notwithstanding our political and ideological differences, must strive to develop a progressive democracy which respects the ideas and opinions of all rather than amplifying the majoritarian viewpoints.
By Rohan Kataria
Rohan Kataria is a student of Political Sciences and a member of The Symposium Society. Passionate about global affairs and Indian politics.