If the ruler in a democracy believes in “My way or the highway”, then this attitude is bound to lead to all kinds of problems. The three new farm laws and the massive opposition to them by the farmers of the country is a clear example of this.
Had the well-established parliamentary procedures, processes, conventions and practices been properly followed, this situation would not have arisen. I was shocked to learn that only 25% of the legislations introduced in the two Houses of Parliament are now referred to the departmentally related standing committees, and the rest are passed directly by the two Houses with the help of the brute majority the government enjoys in the Lok Sabha and steamrolling in the Rajya Sabha by foul means. If this is so, then the opposition has clearly failed to assert itself in parliament and allowed itself to be crushed into submission by the government with the help of obliging presiding officers.
It wasn’t always like this
It was not so earlier, not even when the opposition was not very strong. I remember one particular episode from the 15th Lok Sabha (2004-2009) when I was chairing the Standing Committee on Finance. The companies’ Bill, in which the government had proposed massive changes, was referred to the committee by the speaker, Lok Sabha. The committee duly examined it and submitted its report to the speaker.
In the course of time, the government considered the recommendations of the committee and came back to the Lok Sabha with amendments to the earlier Bill. I noticed that the government had gone beyond its own earlier draft Bill and the recommendations of the committee, and introduced some new provisions in the revised Bill. I demanded that since it was a new Bill with new provisions, it must again be referred to the standing committee for examination and report.
Veerappa Moily, the minister in-charge, was reluctant to do so. I stood my ground. Subsequently, Pranab Mukherjee, the real troubleshooter for the government in those days, called a meeting in which both Moily and I were present. We both presented our arguments. Mukherjee agreed with my point of view, and the Bill was referred to the standing committee again. As a concession to Moily, I promised to have it examined on priority.
On another occasion, the first Aadhaar Bill introduced by the UPA government was rejected in toto by the committee, which recommended that the government should re-examine the Bill in the light of the observations of the committee and come up with a new Bill altogether. And please note that in the standing committees, the treasury benches are always in a majority.
The government today is spending hours with the farmers discussing the three new farm legislations. The farmers are on the war path and are insisting that the farm laws should be withdrawn totally. In the meanwhile, life in the capital city of India is totally disturbed, specially for those of us who live in the NCR region. It is difficult to predict what the outcome of these parleys will be. But if only the government had not insisted on “my way or the highway”, all this could have been avoided.
I can understand the attitude of the government. It has no regard for parliamentary practices and procedures. Neither the prime minister nor the home minister has had any previous experience of parliament, nor do they care for them. The others in the government with such experience have lost the courage to even offer honest and correct advice. In the Rajya Sabha the opposition party members did oppose, and stoutly, the passing of these Bills. But their objections were overruled in a manner, which was completely unparliamentary and unconstitutional. As I said in a recent tweet, ‘When parliament fails, the street takes over.’ That is the spectacle we are witnessing today on the roads leading to Delhi.
Imagine what would have happened if the government had referred these Bills to the standing committee. The committee would surely have called farmers’ representatives, taken their views and made its recommendations in the light of their observations and the views of all other stakeholders. All this trouble could then have been avoided.
‘I am the monarch of all I survey’ is a dictum which might have suited the kings and emperors of yore. It ill serves the rulers in a democracy.
What is the way out? The government should eschew its ego and repeal these Bills by calling a short session of parliament despite COVID-19. But it should consult with the farmers before drafting the new Bills, if at all. The postponement of the winter session of parliament is nothing more than avoiding accountability. If the Bihar assembly elections could be held during COVID-19, why not a session of parliament?
This approach, though, calls for a mindset which this government sorely lacks. It still has more than three years left in office. One hopes it learns some lessons from this experience and behaves more responsibly in the future.
Yashwant Sinha is a former finance minister and former external affairs minister of India.