What if the rules precluded multiple adjournments during the day? What if the day’s listed business agreed at the Business Advisory Committee meetings had to be completed? What if Parliament could not be adjourned sine die until the business listed for the session was completed? It is worth mulling over the questions this weekend.
On Friday, both the Houses adjourned—18 days of the Winter Session virtually washed out for all intents and purposes. It is estimated that every minute of a Parliamentary day costs the national exchequer roughly `2.5 lakh. There is the issue of loss of public monies. More important is the erosion of expectation and credibility of the institution.
For 17 of the 18 days that Parliament was in session, the ruling NDA and the Opposition rendered the rule book of Parliament, intended to facilitate accountability by government, into an instrument of denial. The Opposition, which wanted discussions to be followed by voting, asked why the BJP was scared of voting? The ruling front countered this by asking why the Opposition was running away from discussion. Amidst the semantics of politics, the hapless citizen has been left out of the equation.
Every session, Parliamentarians troop up to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi to register their protests. They did so this session too. The Mahatma is witness to the promise made on currency—the `2,000 note, is called the Gulabi Gandhi. He is also invoked at every opportunity by parties of every shade. None, though, care to remember his talisman to “think of the poorest and the weakest”. MPs may well be elected on party symbols, but their primary obligation is to those they represent. Unsurprisingly, President Pranab Mukherjee rebuked MPs and said, “For God’s sake do your job.”
It has been a month since the government rendered illegal over 86 per cent of the currency in circulation. It is by far the biggest decision on currency and the most important political economy decision in four decades. People across the nation are looking for answers, for clarity on the many questions that baffle them. In theory, the Opposition is obliged to make the government accountable. In practice, the parties flail repeatedly.
Here are some questions that the Opposition is obliged to ask but did not: What was the process of the decision-making? For sure, persons of integrity and intelligence would have been consulted. What were the views? What is the legal map of “delegalisation” of currency? Was it under Section 26(2)? Does the section cover the subsequent notifications covering allowances and disallowances? Is the exercise a violation of provisions of the Constitution? Is the RBI competent to deny citizens access to their property, even if in one form and part? Can the RBI limit, cap and ration use of currency? Under what law were cooperative banks deemed unfit to handle cash?
The government cited four important reasons for the move. The objectives included tackling terror funding, extinguishing counterfeit currency, curbing black money and promoting a less cash economy. How has this played out? What was the estimate of counterfeit money in the economy and how much has been recovered? What was the estimate of “black money” and how much—as per the government—will be extinguished?
The government has been “dynamic” in easing and tightening restrictions. What was the basis on which these notifications were issued? What is the legal position on exemptions? The government has assured household savings in currency up to `2.5 lakh will be exempt from queries but has not elaborated. How will the government ensure households will not be harassed?
The “demonetisation” has impacted the day-to-day economics of the people. What is the estimation of the government of the impact on the economy? Will there be a hit, and how much, and if not, why not? What is the time frame for remonetisation of the economy? There are reports of people losing lives, of farmers in distress and small enterprises shutting down or downsizing. The government compensates those affected by natural disasters through the NDRF. Has the government thought of a similar mechanism to compensate those impacted?
The Opposition, in their obduracy, is missing the proverbial woods for the tree. Instead of arguing for voting—which the political math shows was simply a ruse—the parties could have asked for an extended discussion. Instead of asking for the presence of the Prime Minister, they could have asked for a clause by clause response to the questions raised.
It is not just the Opposition which has missed and messed an opportunity. The objective of ridding the economy of black money demands tackling both the stock created and the opportunities that create the flow. Small businesses deal in cash partly due to archaic labour laws and fear of Inspector Raj. This requires reforms—in rules and regulation that incentivise use of cash and sustain Inspector Raj of the EMI kind. Corruption thrives on multi-layered permission. This calls for decentralisation. The BJP, in power in 11 states, could have outlined a promise for catalytic change. There is also the issue of political funding. The BJP, which completed half its term, could have leveraged the Winter Session to present a work in progress report and evangelised its own idea of India.
Parliamentary disruptions have been a recurring meme—pious promises are made only to be breached. On August 26, 1997, Purno Agtok Sangma called a special session of Parliament to observe the 50th anniversary of Independence. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then leader of the Opposition, had observed, “We have turned the biggest Parliamentary democracy into a fish market.’’ The session saw members promising to ensure orderly functioning of the House. Three months later, in the wake of the Jain Commission Report, it was business, rather no business as usual.
Similar promises were made at another special session, in 2000, as the Republic turned 50. Only to be breached soon thereafter. The instrument of blockade as an expression of protest was sort of invented by the Congress during the Vajpayee regime. During the UPA regime, the BJP patented it. Sushma Swaraj, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha averred, “Not allowing Parliament to function is a form of democracy”, while Arun Jaitley, leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha said, “Parliamentary obstruction is not undemocratic”.
It brings us back to the question: Can Indian hope for better? What if the President of India mandates that Parliament could not be adjourned sine die until the listed business of the session was completed? For sure, this is an idea that begs adoption on an election manifesto in the 2019 elections.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change