India’s silenced parliament
14 Sep 2020|

After a nearly six-month hiatus, the Indian parliament reconvenes today in the midst of a deepening national crisis. But I fear that it may be unable to hold the country’s failing government to account.

Parliament is obliged to meet now, because India’s constitution limits the gap between sessions to six months, and the Covid-19 pandemic has forced all sessions to be suspended since March. With almost 4.5 million cases to date, India is now the world’s second worst-affected country, surpassing Brazil and Russia and behind only the United States.

And infection rates are rising, especially in rural areas where testing had not been adequately extended earlier. Fortunately, the Covid-19 mortality rate remains relatively low, at 57 per 1 million people, representing just 1% of deaths from all causes.

But if lives have not ended, livelihoods have, owing to draconian but ineffective lockdowns introduced in March. GDP collapsed by 23.9% year on year in the June quarter, making India the world’s worst-performing major economy. Unemployment is rife—some 21 million salaried jobs have been lost during the pandemic and millions more in the informal sector, especially among day labourers, who are now unable to make ends meet. Small and micro enterprises are being shuttered throughout the country. And the millions of migrant workers who trudged home in despair during the lockdown have found themselves no better off in their home villages’ stagnant economies.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government seems utterly helpless to stop the economic meltdown, as if paralysed by the plummeting indicators in every sector. A much-hyped fiscal stimulus turned out to be less than one-tenth of the size that Modi had claimed, and it failed to alleviate nationwide distress. The budget adopted just before the lockdowns is in tatters, its every assumption rendered irrelevant.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, a major crisis has erupted on India’s disputed border with China, where 20 Indian soldiers were brutally killed in June in the icy Himalayan heights of Ladakh. Talk of disengagement has failed to translate into withdrawals, and both sides have sent reinforcements to the tenuous Line of Actual Control that divides their forces. Last week, the two countries’ foreign ministers announced a new agreement to disengage, although it remains to be seen whether this will be realised.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has stepped up its cross-border militancy in Kashmir, which is seething with unrest following last year’s clampdown by Modi’s government. Many fear that India may be facing a two-front war before the year is out.

All this should normally make for a lively parliamentary session. But the legislature will itself meet in abnormal and straitened circumstances, reflected in the extraordinary measures announced in advance of the session. No MP may enter the premises without a Covid-negative certificate from a test administered within three days of the session. Inside, social distancing will apply in the usually cramped chambers, with MPs distributed throughout the upper and lower houses and the visitors’ galleries.

As a result, the two houses will take turns meeting for a half-day each in sessions lasting four hours instead of the usual six, and on all seven days of the week rather than the traditional five. Worse, the government and the presiding officers have decided that, given the shorter sessions, they will dispense with question hour, the only opportunity for MPs to demand unscripted answers from ministers on a variety of subjects. (In response to the outcry, the government has agreed to accept written questions two weeks in advance, to which ministers will provide written answers.)

Suspending question hour is typical of a government that abhors being questioned. Modi has not held a single press conference in India in his six years in office, and is notorious for granting interviews only when the questions are pre-approved. Protesters questioning the government in the streets are charged with sedition, and critics are denounced as anti-national. A prominent lawyer who tweeted his objections to recent Supreme Court decisions was convicted of criminal contempt. And the mainstream news media, far from interrogating the government’s performance, has recently been fixated on the lurid details of a Bollywood actor’s suicide and the conspiracy theories swirling around it.

In the meantime, the government stumbles on and tries to mask its ineptitude with a variety of public-relations stunts, including a bizarre recent photoshoot of Modi feeding peacocks in his garden. The official response to failure is denial, as with Modi’s recent claim that India had lost no territory to China, despite satellite pictures and evidence on the ground that clearly indicate otherwise.

China has gleefully seized on this statement to deny that it has encroached on over 1,000 square kilometres of land. China’s leaders are not the first to realise that they can get away with anything with this Indian government, as long as Modi can claim victory at home.

Parliament therefore has a vital job on its hands, but many MPs fear that it will be unable to do it. The government will use its crushing majority to pass the bills it wants, particularly those converting a dozen ordinances or executive orders issued during the last six months into law, while sidestepping debate on the issues that matter.

The government’s tendency to use its parliamentary majority as a rubber stamp was already apparent in previous sessions. And this session could be cut short at any sign of Covid-19—one MP has died from it since March.

The visible measures necessitated by the pandemic— face masks, greater distance between MPs and plastic partition screens—may not be all that is different about this parliamentary session. I fear that our democracy’s highest legislative body will be reduced to a noticeboard for government decisions. There is a genuine risk that while India will honour the outward forms of parliamentary process, the spirit of debate, discussion, disagreement and deliberation will be missing.