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Lessons for Modi government on parliamentary democracy — from L K Advani and Sushma Swaraj

The morning of December 18 was supposed to be an immersive experience into India’s rich democratic culture for the visiting Sri Lankan Parliamentary Delegation seated in the Lok Sabha visitors’ gallery. But instead of witnessing the glory of the world’s largest democratic country, they would carry back memories of democracy’s demise. An unprecedented 72 Members of Parliament belonging to Opposition parties were suspended in a matter of minutes. The Orwellian tale continued the following day, taking the total number of suspended members to 141, then to 143. It effectively took longer for chairpersons to read out the list than is spent debating key legislation these days.

The new Parliament building never managed to keep the ethos of democracy alive. Built at a huge cost to the exchequer during a global pandemic when the funds could have been better spent elsewhere, the new complex has several infrastructural and operational issues. However, the ongoing Winter Session saw new precedents being set each day — from security breaches to suspension of dissenting voices.

What remains a common theme in all actions of the autocratic BJP-led so-called NDA government is their disregard for norms and conventions of parliamentary democracy. They have stifled the voices of the media, citizenry, and now elected MPs. The institutional capture seems to extend beyond ED and CBI to non-partisan posts within Parliament. The right to question an incumbent government is the bedrock of democracy. Today, citizens are watching in dismay as this right is rendered meaningless in a place where it should be safeguarded the most.

Also Read | Let them speak: Suspension of MPs shows Parliament must find better ways to engage

While the Modi government might waver from core constitutional principles, it is important to remind them that our collective responsibility is to govern as Members of Parliament. Members belonging to Opposition parties also represent the will and aspirations of the people. To suspend them for “unruly behaviour” en masse, without distinguishing it from every member’s right to hold the government answerable and accountable for the recent security breach, is putting politics above Parliament. The arbitrary suspension also prevents members from discharging other duties such as raising questions and matters of urgent public importance, participating in committee proceedings, etc. Two decades ago, when a devastating security breach stunned the Parliament on the very same date, the then Deputy Prime Minister and Union Home Minister, Lal Krishna Advani, addressed the House as a matter of responsibility. Today, the top leadership of the same party chooses to respond everywhere else, except on the floor of the House.

Most importantly, while accusing everyone else of failing democratic duties, the Modi government conveniently overlooks its own culture of silence. Not so long ago, it took a no-confidence motion to get the Prime Minister to address Parliament on ethnic violence in Manipur — an issue that continues to be far from resolved even today. In indulging in a cancel culture of drowning out questions and dissent, the Modi government itself fails to uphold democracy.

Festive offer

The arrogance of a brute majority is on full display. The future will likely see a more authoritarian attitude towards citizens, further weakening of rights and liberties, and the coming of a surveillance age. The desire to have complete control over the lives of citizens is a critical objective of this administration. From making people languish in queues due to ill-thought policies like demonetisation to disregarding the fundamental right to privacy with the latest Telecommunications Bill, the people of India must brace for interference in all aspects of their lives. With a majority of the Opposition barred from participating in the proceedings of the House, the Modi government will proceed to bulldoze important legislation without meaningful discussions, effectively making a mockery of democratic procedures.

Under PM Modi, the mass suspension of Opposition MPs will become another normal tool for dissent and freedom of speech. In this “new India” students are terrorists, journalists are jailed under harsh laws, protests are disallowed and investigative agencies coerce private individuals. Even the slightest flicker of criticism will not be allowed. This is not democracy, it’s a suffocating cage. When the founders chose the parliamentary system, they chose, as B R Ambedkar said “responsibility and accountability of the executive over stability”. The Modi government has engaged in blasphemy of the highest order, by destroying this very spirit of responsibility and accountability in the institution the PM himself called the “temple of democracy”.

Express View | Opposition removal from Parliament: Breach and stain

The growing divide between the government and Opposition benches inside Parliament is a worrying trend. The government’s attempts to systematically exclude the Opposition from parliamentary functions directly and indirectly impede the idea that this is a democracy for all, by all. The former Leader of Opposition, Sushma Swaraj, had rightly observed that political parties are rivals, not enemies — another lesson the current government of the same party seems to have forgotten.

The Opposition, today, is the last line of defence, fighting for the idea of India. We find ourselves primarily responsible for safeguarding principles enshrined in the Constitution from the excesses of this government. Our collective resolve is up against a mammoth machinery, which will continue its tyranny to stifle all of our voices. We are firm in our collective resolve and are certain that the truth of our pursuits will prevail. As a duty-bound opposition, the INDIA Alliance will continue to use all options at our disposal — due process and interventions inside the Parliament, and a do-or-die battle outside of it, to protect the idea of India.

The writer is deputy leader of the Indian National Congress in the Lok Sabha

© The Indian Express Pvt Ltd

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