Parliament’s changed bench strength spells more hope

In the 18th Lok Sabha, the governing coalition and the Opposition need to do justice to parliamentary business

Updated - June 24, 2024 06:13 pm IST

Published - June 24, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘The hope is that the new House will be different in its working and its deliberations during its tenure’

‘The hope is that the new House will be different in its working and its deliberations during its tenure’ | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

There is a great sense of expectation from the 18th Lok Sabha, with the inaugural session scheduled to commence on June 24. The hope is that the new House will be different in its working and its deliberations during its tenure. The anticipation arises from the reduced numerical presence of the governing coalition’s lead partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the increased strength of a combined Opposition, led by the Congress, than what it was during the previous two editions of the Lok Sabha.

After a hiatus of a decade, a government is a coalition, headed by the leader of the single-largest party, and now dependent on crucial support from two regional allies, the Janata Dal (United) and the Telugu Desam Party. Though, technically, the BJP helmed the National Democratic Alliance government, between 2014-24, the situation then was different as the lead party had comfort in bench strength, an element missing for the present.

More space for the Opposition

The verdict handed over by the people in 2024 is clear. The country requires a stronger Opposition, which can put forth views that are in contrast with the policies and programmes of the governing coalition, and blunt the ability of the lead party to vigorously push its agenda without facing resistance. As new members of the 18th Lok Sabha take oath, the combined Opposition strength stands a little over 230, while the governing coalition with over 300 members, tips the scales precariously in its favour.

This change in the constitution of the new House gives rise to the hope that there would be greater accommodation on behalf of the government towards concerns of the Opposition. During the past decade, Members of Parliament opposed to the government complained that behind the wall of majority, the BJP’s parliamentary managers conceded little space. The instances often cited to back this claim were the non-acceptance, in Parliament, of notices for adjournment or discussions on issues such as the border situation since the bloody clashes with China, and attendant matters.

On the other hand, the government’s insistence on performance measured in terms of productivity on legislation became a barometer for the efficacy of Parliament. While both Houses of Parliament remain the only place to legislate laws for the country, the tendency of the governing coalition’s parliamentary managers to secure passage without adequate scrutiny and debate become a bone of contention with the Opposition. The sheer presence of its greater numbers permitted the government to follow the latter portion of the adage that the ‘opposition can have its say, the government will have its way’.

The norm of subjecting proposed legislation to parliamentary oversight in the form of scrutiny by committees of jurisdiction became scarce. Three decades ago, Parliament decided to expand the committee system and introduced an additional layer of reading of the Bills. It served Parliament well, permitting Members across the aisle to deliberate on Bills in a non-partisan and dispassionate manner and offer recommendations to fine-tune proposed legislation. The rationale of conducting committee meetings away from the public glare or providing access to the media during its deliberations was to prevent the proclivity of members to grand-stand on party lines. Unanimity was the mantra.

Committees have been transacting a load of business in examining issues and hearing suggestions from domain experts which become integral in arriving at recommendations on a subject under study. For instance, the Opposition cited the three controversial farm laws that were cleared without referral to the Committee, leading to protests and eventually forcing the government to withdraw them.

The Opposition’s contention was that an examination by the committee of jurisdiction and its consultation process would have provided the government a well-rounded view. This opportunity was missed. The system of parliamentary oversight cannot be equated to placing Bills in the public domain and inviting suggestions, which are then vetted by bureaucratic processes. The committee work begins after the Ministry concerned drafts a Bill incorporating, if need be, suggestions flowing from the public.

Both Houses have separate Rules of Procedure and Conduct. While following these meticulously is expected, Parliament also functions on time-honoured conventions. For instance, when the Minister makes a suo motu statement on any issue in Rajya Sabha, the Chair can permit members to seek clarifications, a convention that is unique to the House.

While many advocate the need for a debate between contesting candidates during elections on the lines of the U.S. presidential candidates, the unique practice of holding the elected government of the day is at play each day during Question Hour. Ministers come prepared to take questions from Members, which reflects the extent of the grasp of the subject of those seeking information and the one who is duty-bound to respond. The schedule of the calendar allocates Ministries on specific days including the Prime Minister’s Office. In the last 10 years, the Prime Minister has not made an intervention even as a junior Minister has responded. Another practice given a go by is the Prime Minister making a statement after his foreign travels, a task sometimes delegated to the Minister of External Affairs.

The post of Speaker

The first test of the governing coalition and the combined Opposition in Parliament will be when Members of Parliament of the new Lok Sabha will be called upon to elect the Speaker and custodian of the House. The governing coalition has the numbers to place its own person even though the Opposition may seek to test the waters. However, the second test will be on the election of the Deputy Speaker, a constitutional post that remained vacant during the five-year tenure of the 17th Lok Sabha. Citing convention and tradition, the Opposition expects the position to be offered to it in the current House. During the past four decades, there have been exceptions when a member belonging to a party outside the government was elected. In 1985 and then again in 2014, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s M. Thambidurai secured the honour.

As for the proceedings, the new session will offer the Opposition ample opportunity to critically evaluate the policies and programmes of the government, which will be put forth during the address of the President of India, Droupadi Murmu, to Members of both the Houses sitting together. The ensuing debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address offers an opening for the Opposition to pick up and analyse threadbare issues of concern without getting hemmed by the topic being germane. In a way, the Motion can be likened to be an omnibus resolution.

Significantly, just days after the Lok Sabha results, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Mohan Bhagwat articulated his thoughts which lay emphasis on consensus building and suggesting that the Opposition must be viewed as a political opponent and not an adversary.

Points of friction

In the run-up to the inaugural session of the new Lok Sabha, points of friction between the governing coalition and the Opposition cropped up on two occasions. The Congress objected to the manner in which the statues of Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar was shifted to a newly constructed and designated spot called ‘Prerna Sthal” (or an inspirational place) within Parliament’s precincts and also the decision to appoint BJP’s Bhartruhari Mahtab as pro tem Speaker.

The first decision, it contended, was arrived at without due process established in Parliament, while the second decision, on the pro tem Speaker ignored the convention that senior-most members in the current House should have been appointed to complete the formalities of the swearing-in of new Members of Parliament. The Speaker, Om Birla, dismissed the first by stating that consultations were held and ‘that there was no need to indulge in politics on this’. In the second instance, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Kiren Rijiju, went public criticising the Congress for politicising the appointment.

By calling on the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge earlier, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister indicated that in parliamentary democracy, the governing coalition would follow time-honoured traditions. As days progress and regular sessions begin, the role will require dexterity to underscore that the spirit of accommodation. While the governing coalition should be in the forefront to take every shade of opinion along, the Opposition needs to recalibrate its strategy to extract the best by taking recourse to parliamentary tools on the anvil. And, the onus will be on all sides to maintain civility in debate.

K.V. Prasad is a Delhi-based senior journalist

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