The executive’s attempts to circumvent the legislature and the growing influence of money power in deciding elections have eroded people’s legitimate aspirations
Parliament is the custodian of the Constitution of India. The Preamble to the Constitution proclaims the supremacy of the people of the country. They exercise their supremacy through their elected representatives who are the Members of Parliament. Nowadays, the non-functioning of Parliament is making headlines . And rightly so. The 15th Lok Sabha could be termed the least productive in the annals of Indian Parliament. As per the statistics prepared by the Lok Sabha secretariat, only 1,157 hours of sittings took place until the 12th session of the 15th Lok Sabha. This is far behind the record of the 14th Lok Sabha, which had 1,736 hours and 55 minutes of sittings. In fact, the first Lok Sabha held 677 sittings of about 3,784 hours during its 14 sessions. The story is no different in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament. For the first time in its history, the Upper House returned the budget without any discussion.
UID bill in abeyance
However this is not the only thing corroding the functioning of democracy. The executive has taken most policy decisions without the concurrence of the supreme legislative body of our country. A classic example of this is the Aadhar, a much hyped programme of the UPA government. The Aadhar card is regarded as a pre-requisite for getting all government benefits. Without the Aadhar number, a student would not get any benefit from the Central and State governments. Direct Benefit Transfer is based on Aadhar numbers. Bank accounts are to be linked to it. But what is the legislative backing for Aadhar? The UID bill is supposed to be the law for the implementation of Aadhar. But the Parliamentary Standing Committee had submitted its reports with serious objections to most provisions of the bill. The government has kept it in cold storage and is not ready to move the bill in Parliament in any form for consideration and passing.
But Aadhar has already become a reality and an unavoidable part of the life of an Indian citizen. This covert approach of the government was also visible when it introduced the contributory pension scheme for Central and State government employees. All the State governments in our country are collecting the contribution from crores of their employees for the Pension Fund. But we find that the bill relating to it is still pending in Parliament. What is the legality of collecting hundreds of crores of rupees during all these years? These are only a few instances of the government bypassing Parliament for implementing major policy decisions.
The Constitution clearly defines and demarcates the powers of different organs of the democratic system. When Parliament passes a law, it becomes the law of the land. All citizens of the country are bound to adhere to it. But this constitutional mandate is observed more in its violation.
Unanimous decision overruled
While presenting the Union Budget 2012-13, the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had introduced retrospective taxation. Both Houses passed the Finance Bill unanimously with these provisions. But when P. Chidambaram became the Finance Minister, the scene dramatically changed. He constituted a one-man committee to review this new tax reform. Within a week of submission of the report by Parthasarathi Shome, the tax expert, the government decided to defer the retrospective taxation for three years. Can the unanimous decision of the supreme legislative body of this country be overruled by an expert?
Parliamentary committees are considered a miniature of Parliament. Usually, the committees consist of Members of Parliament representing most political parties. In developed democracies, only Parliament can overrule the decision of the parliamentary committees. But in India, the executive has the right to adopt or reject the recommendations of a parliamentary committee. If the government incorporates a new clause in a bill, which was not there in the original bill, it should again send it to the committee for its consideration. But contrary to this constitutional convention practised hitherto, for the first time in the history of the Indian republic, the government constituted an expert committee to evaluate the recommendations of a Parliamentary Standing Committee. To our surprise, when the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance submitted its report on Direct Tax Code, we found the Finance Ministry immediately constituting a committee on this report. Though the ministry gave some explanations when the controversy erupted, can it be considered fair or just? Was it not usurpation of parliamentary authority and a way of curbing the voice of the people?
All these are nothing but clear indications of a plan to undermine the legislative powers of Parliament. This is further highlighted in other policy issues too. Before the 1990s, the common man in India would eagerly wait before his TV set or radio for the announcement of budget proposals in order to learn about the changes in tax rates, changes in prices of different commodities, rail fares, etc. But nowadays, no one is serious about the budget. Of late, we find that not only Parliament but also the executive has no power in the pricing of petroleum products. The government has handed over the power to oil companies. According to the last Railway Budget, the train fares would be decided by a regulatory authority.
The government is now preparing to pass the Constitution Amendment Bill for Implementing Goods and Services Tax. As per the draft bill, Parliament has no power to decide the tax rates. The GST Council has the powers to decide the tax rate for the Centre and the States. With Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies having no say in these processes, would the budget become a time pass exercise? Are people’s representatives being robbed of their constitutionally conferred responsibilities? After serious protests from different sections of society, the government made a change to this clause in the bill, rendering the powers of the GST Council recommendatory. But there is little doubt that these recommendations will tie the hands of forthcoming Finance Ministers and thus lead to further dilution of the financial powers of Parliament.
Another serious threat to the parliamentary system in India is the steep decline in the representative nature of Indian society in this fundamental institution. As per Election Watch statistics, as many as 306 MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha are crorepatis. This is more than a 100 per cent increase over the 14th Lok Sabha. The average asset of an MP is nearly Rs 5.8 crore. Is it not a farce that they are the representatives of a society where the daily consumption of more than 77 per cent of people is below Rs. 20? Another statistic is that 32 per cent of the candidates who have assets of more than Rs 5 crore won in last Lok Sabha elections. The winning chance of the candidates with assets between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 5 crore is 18.5 per cent; for those with assets below Rs 10 lakh, it is only 2.6 per cent. This clearly indicates that money power is one of the major factors in the election system of a liberalised economy.
The Indian democratic system has a progressive nature up to a certain extent. But it has been attacked by the same class that runs the state. Defending the representative nature of Parliament and protecting its legislative supremacy are responsibilities to which we are constitutionally wedded. Parliament is the vehicle through which people’s aspirations and needs can be met. It is the mechanism to establish the rule of law and distributive justice. Denying and depriving it of its powers and responsibilities can only lead to the erosion of the legitimate aspirations of the people themselves.
(P. Rajeev is a Member of Parliament)