It’s Modi’s Cabinet that’s ‘disrupting’ Parliament, not the Opposition

On the last day of the first sitting of the 18th Lok Sabha, Union Minister Rajnath Singh moved a resolution against the opposition for disrupting PM Modi’s speech — a bit rich coming from a government that has refused to debate pretty much anything.
It’s Modi’s Cabinet that’s ‘disrupting’ Parliament, not the Opposition
It’s Modi’s Cabinet that’s ‘disrupting’ Parliament, not the Opposition

The 18th Lok Sabha is very different from the 17th and 16th versions of the House, in that there is a greater strength in the Opposition ranks. This matters because the first and the second Narendra Modi governments have treated Parliament with disdain and let their agenda prevail without even a proper debate on most issues. The Opposition, diminished in numbers, was able to do little to hold the Union Cabinet accountable in the last 10 years. And yet, whenever they tried to make their point by sloganeering or ‘creating a ruckus’ in the last 10 years, they've faced criticism for ‘disrupting the Parliament’ and ‘wasting taxpayer money’. ‘Whatever it is, they should let Parliament function,’ has been the refrain from critics from all corners of the political spectrum. And these criticisms resurfaced when the Opposition sloganeered through PM Narendra Modi’s speech during the Motion of Thanks to the President's address earlier this week. 

Except — what does ‘functioning of Parliament’ actually mean? Is the Parliament ‘functioning’ if no one is screaming or shouting — and there are no debates or discussions on important issues affecting the citizen? Is Parliament ‘functioning’ if our MPs are not allowed to do the job they were elected by the citizen to do? Is it ‘functioning’ just because there is some sense of ‘order’ in the most superficial sense of the word? 

Is Parliament really ‘making’ laws?

The three pillars of the government — the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary all have separate powers and functions. In the strict sense of separation of powers, the legislative — the Parliament and state legislature — is supposed to make laws, keep the executive accountable, and has the power to impeach judges for misconduct; the executive — or the Union and state Cabinet — is supposed to implement laws; and the judiciary is supposed to uphold these laws. 

In India, the Constitution doesn’t provide for a very strict separation of powers between the executive and the legislature — the ministers of the government are also part of the Parliament. If there was a strict separation of powers, the Cabinet would not be a part of law “making” — only implementation. It would be the MPs elected by the citizens of the country who make laws — no matter which party they belong to, no matter which part of the country they represent. And this was partially the case in India, too, until 1970; for most of this period, the makers of the Constitution were still in Parliament. 

However, over time, the law-making powers of our legislators have been reduced to law-evaluating and passing powers. Today, it’s mainly the ministers of the government who introduce laws, and the MPs we elect discuss and debate these laws and vote on them. While other MPs who are not ministers — whether in the ruling coalition or in the opposition — can also introduce Bills, they have very limited time to do so. Most of these Bills — called Private Member’s Bills — are never discussed, and even if they are, they’re never passed. DMK MP Tiruchi Siva’s Bill for the rights of transgender persons in 2015 is the only exception — it passed the Rajya Sabha, but when it went to the Lok Sabha, the government asked for it to be withdrawn and promised to bring its own Bill in the matter. 

So if the legislature isn’t really “making” laws — what powers and functions does it actually have? Is there any point in us electing MPs into Parliament? 

The job of holding the government accountable

What the media, and people in general, often forget is that the legislative has another important function — which is overseeing the workings of the executive. That is, there is a big reason why electing individual MPs is important. They have to comb through every law that the Cabinet brings in, debate its merits and demerits, and decide on whether a Bill that has been introduced should be passed or not. This is the job of every single MP (and MLA) — not just those from the Opposition. 

However, the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution — a controversial amendment that was brought in in 1985 — makes this more complicated. Popularly known as the anti-defection law, this provision allows political parties to declare “whips” while voting; any person who doesn’t vote according to what the party says can be suspended by the party. This greatly reduces the powers of individual MPs. 

But aside from the proceedings in the House — the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha, and the state Assembly — MPs and MLAs also do the job of oversight as part of several committees of the Parliament and state legislatures. There are ‘Standing Committees’ under the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha for various ministries/subjects, like the Standing Committee for Home Affairs, the Standing Committee for Defence, the Public Accounts Committee, the committee for Health and Family Welfare. Each of these committees has to study various issues on the direction of the Speaker or Chairperson, including making changes to Bills that have been referred to them. Sometimes, Joint Parliamentary Committees (JPCs) are formed to investigate scams and other important issues — there have been JPCs that have looked into the Bofors scandal, the 2G case, and the VVIP chopper scam, among other issues. 

Unlike the House proceedings, committee proceedings are not televised. That does not mean this work is not important — in fact, committees are often spaces where MPs can form their own conclusions on issues and make important suggestions without the pressure of having to toe the party line or make a performance in the House. 

The media however seems to forget that this is an important function of the Parliament — evidenced by the question that a reporter asked Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during a press conference following the General Election 2024 results. Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders demanded the constitution of a JPC to investigate the alleged stock market manipulation ahead of the election results when most exit polls uniformly declared a huge win for the BJP echoing the party’s line of “400 paar” (over 400 seats). The exit polls were far from reality, with the BJP failing to reach the halfway mark of 272 by itself and having to depend on its alliance partners to form the government. 

Questioning Rahul Gandhi’s demand, a reporter from a Delhi-based television channel that had aired one of the most controversial exit polls, asked if the demand wasn’t a ‘waste of taxpayer money and Parliament’s time’. Assuming no ulterior motive, the question reveals the journalist’s lack of understanding of what the Parliament is supposed to do.

It is this same ignorance about the workings of the Parliament that leads to pearl-clutching statements of ‘waste of taxpayer money’ over disruption of Parliament proceedings by the Opposition. 

Who’s blocking the functioning of the Parliament?

The common grouse that many commentators have over sloganeering by Opposition MPs is that by doing so, they’re not letting the Parliament ‘function’. However, we first need to define what the ‘functioning of Parliament’ actually means. 

With a brute majority for the last 10 years, the BJP-led Union Cabinet and the party’s MPs have not allowed debates on several critical issues. 

In the 17th Lok Sabha for instance (2019 to 2024) there were 1,355 working hours, of which only 316 hours were spent discussing the Bills introduced by the government. 

There were 221 Bills passed in this period, over one-third of which were passed with a discussion of less than one hour. Few Bills were referred to standing committees for greater scrutiny; 16% of the Bills in the 17th Lok Sabha, and 28% of the Bills in the 16th Lok Sabha, compared to 71% and 60% of the Bills in the 15th and 14th Lok Sabha (under UPA). 

The 17th Lok Sabha also saw the suspension of 115 MPs — the highest in the history of India. 

While the Opposition has demanded debates on the Manipur conflict, the Parliament security breach, electoral reforms, Pegasus, the controversial farm laws, China’s encroachment of Indian land, the role of Governors, Adani, etc, the Cabinet aided by the Speaker in Lok Sabha and the Chairman in Rajya Sabha has been steadfast in not allowing any actual debate to take place. 

So if debates are being blocked by the Cabinet, and the Cabinet refuses to submit itself to any public scrutiny — who exactly is blocking the functioning of the Parliament? Must a citizen simply be satisfied with a “proper” opening and closing hour, and not question when the Cabinet bulldozes its way through all procedures? 

The act of causing a disruption to such a farcical “functioning” of the Parliament is the job of every elected MP who represents the citizens of India — it is the duty of the Parliamentarian to protest when she’s not being allowed to do her job. And calling this “disrespectful” and a “waste of taxpayer money” is hollow rhetoric that is condescending to the meaning of a democracy. 

A stronger opposition, a stronger democracy

The situation in the current Lok Sabha is displeasing to anyone who supports an authoritarian government in the name of democracy. The BJP has only 240 seats in the House out of 543 — far away from the halfway mark of 272. The NDA has formed the government, however the Opposition isn’t as diminished in numerical strength as it was in the last two terms. 

This means that the Cabinet can no longer do as it pleases and ignore the Parliament. This was evident in the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address in the Lok Sabha on several occasions — particularly during Leader of Opposition Rahul Gandhi’s speech, and Leader of the House and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech. 

During Rahul Gandhi’s speech, while the Treasury benches — including Prime Minister Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Agriculture Minister Shivraj Chauhan — stood up to interrupt his speech and claim mistakes on the LOP’s part, the Opposition had enough strength of its own to quote the rulebook back to the Treasury benches and the Speaker, Om Birla — the man who suspended the maximum number of MPs in the history of India’s democracy. 

During Modi’s speech meanwhile, the Opposition kept up its demand for the Prime Minister to speak on Manipur throughout his speech. Despite an official death toll of 221 since May last year, the Prime Minister of the country has not opened his mouth on the ethnic conflict in the state, nor has he visited Manipur. It is the Parliament’s job to hold him accountable for the situation in Manipur, and while the Prime Minister is yet to speak on the issue, the Parliament was able to make its point loud and clear for the entire country to hear. 

The hope with this strengthened Opposition is that important issues in the country including caste and communal violence, NEET and NTA, price rise, unemployment, and several other burning issues are actually addressed in the Parliament this time around. 

The hope is that the Cabinet led by Narendra Modi will not be allowed to disrupt the actual functioning of the Parliament for the third consecutive term. 

Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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