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Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

Need for restoring order in Parliament

Disruptions have gone up in recent years and need deeper attention; Parliament's functioning in the budget session will depend on the Congress' strategy

After two back-to-back Parliament sessions ended without desirable movement on the government’s legislative agenda—due to constant disruption by the opposition—efforts are being made at different levels to avoid a repeat in the upcoming budget session, which starts from 23 February. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to the leaders of opposition recently, vice-president and chairman of the Rajya Sabha Hamid Ansari also called an all-party meeting last week, which was attended by Modi. Besides, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan will meet representatives of political parties on Monday. But the critical question is: will these meetings actually result in smooth functioning in both the houses of Parliament?

There are plenty of issues that can be debated or used to disrupt proceedings. For instance, the government could have handled the ongoing Jawaharlal Nehru University issue far better—there was no need for ministers to get involved. The arrest of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar on charges of sedition and the sheer incompetence of the Delhi Police to protect him on the court premises has united the opposition. The incident has also significantly polarized public opinion. This comes after ministerial intervention in campus politics at the University of Hyderabad was severely criticized and is being linked to the tragic demise of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar. While the government and members of the ruling party are willing to aggressively debate the issue, this tussle could have been avoided. This would have allowed the government to focus on its economic and legislative agenda, especially when the opposition is not cooperating.

However, there is no guarantee that Parliament would have functioned smoothly if these incidents hadn’t happened. The past two sessions were not wasted because disruption was the only option, but because the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, wanted it that way. As a result, among other things, the government could not complete the legislative process for the implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) from the beginning of the next financial year.

There are a number of other issues—from Gujarat to Jammu and Kashmir to the economy and the state of farmers—that can dominate the budget session. But Parliament’s functioning will depend on the Congress’ strategy. If the party believes that disruption is a better political choice, perhaps in light of the upcoming assembly elections, the government will once again find it difficult to get the GST and other important bills such as the one related to bankruptcy passed. The Congress, however, must note that in the last session, public opinion and a number of other parties in the opposition were not in favour of disrupting Parliament.

To be sure, disruptions are not a monopoly of the Congress. Adjournments and disruption have risen significantly in recent years and need deeper attention. According to numbers compiled by PRS Legislative Research, productivity of the 15th Lok Sabha, when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in opposition, was the worst in the past 50 years.

Clearly, political parties and members of Parliament are aware that their performance in the house is practically irrelevant in elections, whatever public opinion about their obstructionism may otherwise be.

At a broader level, while the opposition may want to draw attention to a particular issue by way of disruption and score political points, it loses the opportunity to hold the government accountable on other important subjects. For example, the 15th Lok Sabha lost 61% of the time allotted to question hour. More recently, in 2015’s monsoon session, the Rajya Sabha utilized only 9% of the total allocated time. Time spent on discussion and passage of budget has also come down over the years. This needs to change—maybe by increasing the stake for opposition in the system. But this change will also need debate as disruption is unlikely to solve any problem. If things don’t change for the better in the upcoming budget session, a reversal will become increasingly difficult in the future.

Will the opposition allow Parliament to function in the upcoming budget session? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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