With Parliament becoming a “ghost town” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the judiciary having ‘abdicated’ its role, accountability mechanisms have become diluted and the central executive has become all-powerful and given free rein to do whatever it pleases”, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court A.P. Shah said in a hard-hitting speech on Sunday.
He was speaking at the inaugural session of the Janta Parliament webinar being organised jointly by hundreds of civil society groups this week.
Justice Shah said the budget session had been adjourned sine die on March 23 , despite the fact that Parliament had previously continued to function through other times of crisis, including the wars of 1962 and 1971, and met the very next day after its own building faced a terror attack in 2001. Parliaments of other countries had also continued to function through hybrid or completely virtual sessions through the pandemic, enabling remote voting to ensure that legislative business could continue.
In contrast, the Indian Parliament “has remained a ghost town since March 2020,” said Justice Shah. “Besides failing to provide leadership to the people in a time of crisis, like the pandemic, it compounds the problem of representation and accountability by granting the executive a free rein to do as it pleases. Executive accountability, in these conditions, is a thing of memory, for there is no one to raise any questions about its actions,” he said.
Social activist Aruna Roy accused the government of “using this opportunity to push through policies in the most undemocratic way”. She listed the dilution of labour laws, waiving of environmental protections and ramming through a new education policy with no vetting by Parliament as examples.
Justice Shah did not spare his own branch of the government either. “Today, the judiciary appears once again to be failing us,” he said, drawing parallels to the Emergency and accusing the apex court of ignoring or delaying cases related to important issues such as the Kashmir trifurcation, the Citizenship Amendment Act and electoral bonds. “In some cases, such as that of Internet access in Kashmir, the Supreme Court has all but abdicated its role as arbiter, and handed over the matter to an executive-run committee to determine,” he said.
He warned that the dilution of accountability mechanisms during the pandemic is the continuation of a dangerous trend, moving India towards “a form of elected autocracy”.
“What we see happening in India today is an insidious takedown of each of these institutions and mechanisms empowered to hold the executive accountable,” he said.
“Since 2014, every effort has been made to systematically destroy these institutions, not necessarily in the blatantly destructive way that the Indira Gandhi government did in the past, but certainly, in ways that have rendered the Indian democratic state practically comatose, and given the executive the upper hand in most matters.”