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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 22, June 1, 2024

India’s decade of democratic deficit | Avinash Kumar and Puja Rani

Saturday 1 June 2024


May 23, 2924

Parliamentary procedures have been tossed aside as an increasing number of laws are passed with little or no debate.

It took decades of people’s struggles to establish India as a democratic state. The central democratic institution of this state is its parliament. In recent years, parliament’s role has been undermined by a government with a brute majority in the lower house, the Lok Sabha, culminating in a "democratic deficit" in its functioning.

In August 2023, under the guise of protecting the right to privacy, parliament passed the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill [1] by voice vote in both houses of parliament despite a walkout by opposition members [2] over the prolonged violence in Manipur.

The bill granted unchecked discretionary powers to the government by allowing security and investigative agencies to curtail citizens’ constitutional rights to information and free speech “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, maintenance of public order, or preventing incitement to any cognisable offence”.

In voice votes, individual votes are not counted. The Speaker simply declares the outcome on the estimate of the volume of the voice - those in favour or those against.

Silencing opposition in parliament

The parliament sessions in 2023 resulted in the passage of 19 bills in both the Lok Sabha and the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, by voice vote, pushing parliamentary deliberations to the backseat. The vindictiveness of the regime [3] reached an unprecedented level with the suspension of 141 opposition MPs [4].

The unethical use [5] of voice votes for circumventing discussions and rushing bills through parliament amid heated debates and protests, with no clear majority or consensus on the decision, contravenes Article 100(1) of the Constitution [6] that mandates all questions in both the houses of the Parliament have to be decided by the process of voting by a majority of the members present.

Apart from voice votes, the ruling BJP regime has also used the President’s power to promulgate ordinances to effectively bypass parliament [7].

The Constituent Assembly, while accepting the ordinance route, had made it clear that bypassing the normal process of law-making was only an anomaly rather than a norm.

In the first 30 years of parliament [8], for every 10 bills introduced only one ordinance was promulgated. In the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19), the number of ordinances for every 10 bills rose to 3.5.

Worse was yet to come. Eleven ordinances were passed during the COVID-19 pandemic [9], of which only five were remotely related to the pandemic and two to the healthcare sector.

Among the non-health ordinances were three that resulted in massive protests by farmers after they were passed in the subsequent monsoon session without any discussion [10] by voice vote despite the opposition asking for a division of votes.

Despite education being on the concurrent list of the constitution, the regime pushed the National Education Policy 2020 without discussing it with the State governments [11].

The constitutional transgressions are clear.

Old parliamentary norms have been tossed aside during the last decade of BJP rule. Even when the historic farmers’ struggle forced the government to withdraw all three farm laws, the bill to repeal this law was passed [12] in both houses by voice vote without any debate.

The attacks on democratic institutions began soon after the BJP came to power in 2014.

Attacks on the judiciary

The first act of this regime that smacked of neo-fascism [13] (in the technical sense of the term) was the placing of a new bill for a National Judicial Appointments Commission [14] which was presented to the House in August 2014 as a step towards enhancing transparency in the judiciary. The act sought to replace the existing system for the appointment of judges to high courts and the Supreme Court with a new one that would have included the law minister.

The judicial fraternity, however, quickly stood against this move which threatened its independence and the apex court invalidated the act [15] in October 2015.

But this was only the beginning. The government’s concerted attack on the independence of the judiciary and its basic structure doctrine which safeguards the Indian constitution has continued unabated.

Soon after, in October 2015 the government unleashed its plan to dismantle labour protection and give industry a free hand [16]. While the workers were quick to realise the proposed damage and upped the ante in 2015, the government started vilifying all opposition to ‘labour reforms’ as a barrier to an “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India) articulated in the name of “Make in India”.

The third decisive act was amendments to the Representation of People Act, the Income Tax Act, and the Companies Act in 2017, which was introduced dubiously as a Finance Bill [17].

It paved the way for blanket anonymity to corporate contributors to political parties through the electoral bonds route [18]. Finance bills don’t need to pass through the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, where the BJP was well short of a majority.

The opposition parties termed it a “backdoor” route devoid of any legitimate grounds to pass a number of non-finance-related amendments as finance bills, but their protests went unheard.

The changes were however immediately challenged in the Supreme Court which struck it down [19] in 2024 as “unconstitutional and manifestly arbitrary”. Independent investigations have proved that the electoral bond route was a great fraud to Indian democracy [20].

Crafting a federal structure of the Union of India, the Constituent Assembly had strongly affirmed its faith in bicameralism on the grounds it would facilitate dignified debates and delay legislation which might be the outcome of passions of the moment.

The process was also intended to provide an opportunity for experts not associated with the House of the People and citizens to participate through consultation.

In subsequent years, when various governments tried to undermine this process, the two houses of Parliament through their Speakers didn’t hesitate either in conveying their displeasure or restraining the (mis)use of parliament to rubber-stamp any and all actions of the executive.

All that is now history.

The supermajority achieved by the BJP-led NDA in 2019 evidently strengthened its neo-fascist resolve to conquer the state.

Bills passed with little or no debate

Highly controversial bills such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, and the bill revoking Article 370 of the Constitution that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, were rammed through Parliament against the promises made in the Indian Constitution.

Four existing wage and bonus related acts were replaced by the Code on Wages 2019 [21], which excludes employment guarantee programs from the minimum wage provisions and sets a national floor wage lower than the existing minimum wage in several states.

Other bills relating to industrial relations and occupational health and safety were passed by the Rajya Sabha in less than two hours during an opposition boycott. Bills have since been passed without discussion or debate in as little as two minutes. Nor are most bills referred to House Committees for study any longer.

The proportion of bills referred to committees has fallen from 71 percent during the 15th Lok Sabha (which preceded the BJP’s rise to power in 2014) to 16 percent during the current Lok Sabha.

Three bills replacing the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act were passed when only 34 of 543 elected members participated in the discussion [22] in the Lok Sabha, 25 of whom belonged to BJP, and 40 members in the Rajya Sabha, of which 30 members belonged to BJP.

Nothing illustrates better how parliament has suffered a democratic deficit and turned into an instrument of the ruling National Democratic Alliance regime for the neo-fascist conquest of the state.

(Authors: Avinash Kumar teaches at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Puja Rani teaches Political Science at Gargi College, University of Delhi)

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