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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Congress And BJP Gang Up To Derail Democracy, Shame Parliament

When the last article on this site was titled Murder of Democracy, it was not foreseen that worse was to come yet.

The new state of Telangana (तेलॅनगाणा) is about to be born. Let’s us wish it and all its inhabitants all the best! The division of Andhra Pradesh is now a fait accompli. Therefore, this is not about the split. It is about the manner in which the exercise was conducted. The proceedings of the Lok Sabha were almost a throwback to the days of the infamous emergency. The only difference, perhaps, was that, during the emergency, Indira had sent all her opponents to prison, while her daughter-in-law Sonia had the opponents of the bill ejected from parliament. When the Lok Sabha met last week to pass the ‘Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill’, the Speaker used her powers selectively to suspend the bill’s opponents and barred them from entering the house.

During the emergency, quite a few bills were passed in parliament without following any procedure, discussion or debate. Legislators glorified themselves by their decibel power to say ‘aye’ vying with each other to shout the loudest hoping the Empress would notice! It was in such an atmosphere that even the Constitution was amended to insert two political clichés, ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ in its preamble. The amendment was perhaps a smokescreen to enact the other, notorious amendment (the thirty-ninth Constitutional amendment) that gave retroactive immunity from legal proceedings to Indira herself, which was enacted on August 10, 1975.

This time around, the issue at hand is not about making laws that would place an individual above judicial scrutiny or inserting political clichés in the Constitution. How did the clichéd, ‘world’s largest democracy’ go about legislative business that would have far reaching consequences? The legislation under ‘debate’ would affect a population of 8.5 crore of its citizens or, 7% of India’s population. The point is it was not debated at all!

The Bill No. 8 of 2014 as it was introduced in the Lok Sabha runs to seventy six pages, and has one hundred and nine clauses and thirteen schedules. The government itself has proposed thirty six amendments to the bill. What was the time allotted to discuss such lengthy legislation of a momentous and irreversible nature? It was allotted four hours for discussion in the Lok Sabha and all of two hours in the Rajya Sabha. Just to put things in perspective, reading the seventy six pages at the slow pace required to digest its contents would need at least six hours and twenty minutes.

Legislative business involves a rather lengthy process and it may be several months before a bill becomes an act. A bill is a draft proposal placed before parliament. It has to pass through several stages before it gets the parliament’s stamp of approval to become an act. Whereas a proposed legislation can be introduced in either house of the parliament, a bill that seeks to levy or waive off taxes (known as a ‘Money Bill’) could only be introduced in the Lok Sabha first. A private member (whether he is a member of the ruling party or the opposition) can introduce a bill. A bill so introduced is known as a ‘Private Member’s Bill’.

Here, in brief, are the stages that a bill passes through before becoming an act:

First Reading: Introduction in the parliament. It requires permission of the presiding officer, and the legislature. Ascertaining the will of the members may entail in voting.

Gazette Notification: A bill introduced in parliament is notified in the official gazette.

Reference to a Standing Committee: The presiding officer has the discretion to refer the bill to a Standing Committee either on her own volition or on the demand of a majority of members. Ascertaining the will of the members may entail in voting. The voting may be by ‘voice vote’ but if a member demands a ‘division’ the presiding officer is obliged to conduct a poll.

Second Reading: This implies a general discussion on the bill, but it has two or three sub-stages including reference to a Select Committee / Joint Parliamentary Committee of the two houses of parliament. Ascertaining the will of the members may entail in voting. The voting may be by voice vote, but if a member demands ‘division’ the presiding officer is obliged to conduct a poll.

First Stage: If the bill is not referred to the Select Committee / Joint Parliamentary Committee, it is generally discussed, debated and voted upon if a member seeks ‘division’.

Second Stage: In this stage a clause by clause discussion of the bill takes place. Each clause is discussed and debated upon. Amendments could be moved. Each clause is voted upon before being accepted either through a voice vote or by a ballot if a member demands a ‘division’. Similarly, any amendments moved should be accepted or negated by a voice vote or by a ballot if a member demands a ‘division’

Third Reading: The member who proposed the original bill moves the bill. The house then debates it. The bill requires parliamentary approval, which is sought either through a voice vote or a ballot if a member demands ‘division’.

Reference to the other house: A bill introduced in one house is sent to the other house for consideration and approval. It follows the same procedure there expect the introduction stage or First Reading. If the other house makes any amendments to the bill, which are at variance with the clauses approved in the first house, it will have to be sent to the first house again for re-consideration of the amended clauses and approval.

After a bill passes through the stages detailed above and after it satisfies the conditions set for approval of both the houses, it is referred to the President for approval and later a Gazette Notification is published again, this time notifying that the bill became an act.

How did our parliament go about enacting one of the most important legislations that would have far reaching and irreversible consequences? It gave a go-by to all established rules, norms and procedures and steamrolled its way in both the houses of parliament. And the principal opposition party, the BJP entered into an unholy nexus with the government in its act of daylight murder of democracy!

The ‘monumental’ exercise was finished in just twenty three – yes, twenty three – minutes in the Lok Sabha. The upper house or the house of elders, the Rajya Sabha went beyond the allotted two hours not because of any zealousness or propriety our legislators had for parliamentary etiquette, rules and procedures, but because the government wanted the business to be finished and done with.

By being receptive only to those ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ which suited the government’s political agenda and screening out the others, the Presiding Officers did not cover themselves with glory.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Murder of Democracy

Legend has it that Bombay was given away as dowry for a Portuguese princess when she married an English prince in 1661. Thus was Bombay or at least a part of the original seven islands that comprised the city was transferred to the English. Those were colonial days during which the Portuguese, the French and the English were vying with each other to establish empires in the East.

But, would a democracy in the first decade of the twenty first century carve out a new state as a birthday gift? It would seem to be so! Haven’t the Indians willy-nilly brought back a type of colonial rule about sixty years after establishing a republic? Isn’t it ironic that they did so, especially because the republic was established after a fight with a colonial power for about sixty years?      

Things have begun to go wrong since P. Chidambaram made the fateful announcement that ‘the process to carve out India’s 29th state would soon begin’ on the chilly midnight of December 9, 2009. The issue had been contentious and saw see-saw battles depending on which politician was out of work, for forty years till it was renewed afresh in 2001. The demand for creating the Telangana state was only partly conceded by the Congress party just before the 2004 election when it agreed to set up a new ‘states reorganization commission’. It was a political ploy to trump the Telugu Desam. The party did nothing to keep its promise of even setting up a new ‘states reorganization commission’ for the next five years.

Chidambaram’s announcement on the chilly December midnight caught everyone by surprise. If it buoyed the spirits of the protagonists of the new state, the events that followed the announcement sent shivers down the spines of its antagonists. They too did not contend with the amount of public anger that surfaced in the thirteen Seema-Andhra districts. Some political analysts saw that there was more than meets the eye in Sonia’s ‘birthday gift’ that Chidambaram meted out. On the face of it, it was to arouse grateful feelings in the minds of the people of the new state for her forever. As a politician from a neighbouring southern state – one which competes with Andhra Pradesh for resources and in development – Chidambaram might have had more in his mind.

As things stand today, Andhra Pradesh shares the fourth spot with Bengal in the number of members it sends to parliament (after Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra) and is ahead of the other three southern states. After the division, Chidambaram’s state, Tamil Nadu, with thirty nine members packs more punch and power in the parliament. As a columnist in The Hindu opined, the group of ministers (GoM) constituted to chart a course for the division might have had the same ulterior motives to ensure it as they are from the southern states and Maharashtra which compete with Andhra Pradesh for resources and in development. They never set foot on the soil of the state nor did they deliberate much. The length of all their meetings could be measured in minutes, not even hours, let alone days! They did their job much as Cyril Radcliffe did some sixty years before, in 1946-47, chopping states to create India and Pakistan, drawing their lines on a map! The GoM did its job with appalling perfunctoriness. The entire sordid drama scripted from above and enacted by the servile GoM appears to have been done with a single objective: contriving electoral arithmetic to somehow bring back the Congress party to power and anoint the party’s Crown Prince as the King Emperor!

The principal opposition party has expressed its willingness to go along in the division of the state. It too might have had its cynical electoral calculations. The moot question is why was the Congress party in such an unseemly hurry to ramrod its way through parliament? Could it not have allayed at least some of the fears that the antagonists of the division harbour in their minds? The British drew lines in the sand (or on maps) to create several states when they abdicated their empire triggering conflicts worldwide, conflicts which are not resolved till today.

The blame for the ugly scenes that the Lok Sabha saw last Wednesday – described by the Speaker as a blot on our democracy - must fully lay with the Congress party. It was quite obvious that it was playing to a script that in the end murdered democracy in the nation’s vaunted legislative body. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath allegedly arranged about a hundred MPs who have nothing to do with Andhra Pradesh to block the protesters. Would any democratically minded government resort to such a nefarious game of fixing parliamentary proceedings? The government could have brought all stakeholders on to a common forum and fecilitated a healthy debate that would have settled the issue. But it didn’t! Instead, it reduced parliamentary proceedings to an ugly charade. 

The presiding officer has an onerous responsibility now to restore at least a part of the dignity that the parliament shed, by instituting an impartial enquiry, to identify the culprits who reduced proceedings of the nation’s highest legislative body to a gangland brawl, and punish them. Speakers (or presiding officers) of legislative bodies in evolved democracies renounce allegiance to the parties to which they belong, on election to the great office. They never take sides. One hopes India as a ‘vibrant democracy’ – as it is often described - will not find itself wanting in such high values. Fortunately the job of the Speaker or any committee she constitutes is made simpler by modern technology. The proceedings of the house are reportedly monitored by twelve movie cameras. All that is needed to be done is to review their footage – impartially ­- and make the report public. That alone is the test of a mature democracy. Will India stand it?