India, one year after elections: An impasse in Parliament
By Krishna K. Tummala. The South West monsoon in India has failed, but the monsoon session of the Indian Parliament which ended on August 13th was a washout. In a Parliamentary democracy the majority party (or a coalition of parties) comes to power, and the Prime Minister controls. Unlike the case in the United States where powers are separated as a check against one another , in India there is a fusion of the legislature and the executive. One cannot be part of the latter without being a member of the former.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with other coalition partners in his National Democratic Alliance, commands an absolute majority of a total of 339 (out of 541 members). (Read Professor Tummala’s post about the 2014 elections.) Thus, the lower House of Parliament, Lok Sabha, is his. Yet, he could not shepherd important legislation through the Parliament as he found himself in a minority in the upper House, Rajya Sabha with only 61 members (out of 235 total elected). The Congress Party, which often feels entitled to rule, was nursing its drubbing at the elections, and fighting for political space now, leading the Opposition. Thus, they were not going to provide not even the benefit of doubt to Prime Minister Modi. And he unwittingly gave them three reasons.
The first was his intent on making land easily available for business enterprises, both public and public/private partnerships. He believed that setting up business/industrial endeavors has become difficult as procuring land to locate them had not been easy. This was factually wrong. His own Ministry of Finance admitted that only eight percent of projects were stalled in February 2015 (66 out of a total of 804), due to land acquisition issues. Nonetheless, he wanted to amend the existing 2013 law passed by the previous Congress party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to eliminate two important criteria : 80 percent approval from those who would be affected by locating the new industrial/business venture, and the need to make a Social Impact Study. But he did not wait for Parliament to convene and seek its approval. Instead he took the route of an Ordinance, allowed by the Constitution on a short term basis, but needing later approval by Parliament. As Parliament convened, the lower House easily passed the measure. But the upper House refused even to consider, castigating the Modi government as pro-business and anti-farmer, as most tracts are farming land.
They also raised two major corruption issues: one involving Sushma Swaraj, the External Affairs Minister, and the BJP Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje; and the other with regards Shivrajsingh Chouhan, the BJP Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. The first pertained to a Lalit Modi (no relation of the Prime Minister) who started the Indian Premier League—a cricket outfit. But the way it was operated was not “playing cricket.” While he was being investigated on charges of violating Foreign Exchange regulations, Lalit ran out of India to England. Swaraj sought the help of a Labour Party Member of the British Parliament in Lalit’s case to obtain him travel documents to go to Portugal where his wife was being treated for cancer. Raje also was implicated in this. More so, her son was allegedly involved in shady financial deals with Lalit. As the Modi government claimed that they will not allow any corruption, the Opposition parties shouted corruption at the highest levels, and demanded the resignation of both Swaraj and Raje. But the government simply brushed aside the criticism saying that the help to Lalit was a “humanitarian” gesture, and declared that no one would resign!
The second case is known as “vyapam,” wherein several entrance examinations were conducted for various jobs and admissions into schools in the State of Madhya Pradesh, whose Chief Minister is Chouhan. During 2007-2013 as many as 800,000 took these examinations. In 2009, one hundred medical students were dismissed for having taken the test fraudulently. The Supreme Court ordered an inquiry, and a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the State investigated and cleared the government. Worse, the STI declared that the suicide of one of the dismissed medical students was not a suicide at all. The Opposition, both in Parliament and the State, demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). (Not that it is the most neutral and efficient sleuth as it played mostly as a hand-maiden of the federal government of the day. The Supreme Court of India called it a “caged parrot.”). Chouhan refused initially (the CBI cannot inquire unless the State requests), but relented in the face of mounting criticism. The most critical part is as many as 42 connected to this scam, and who could be potential witnesses, died mysteriously, so far. The State Governor’s own son accused of extortion from prospective students/employees, while sitting in the government house, committed suicide. The demands for the Governor’s dismissal (in India the Governor of a State is appointed by the Federal government) and the dismissal of Chouhan fell on deaf years; both continue in office.
Faced with the Opposition parties stalling Parliamentary proceedings, Prime Minister Modi expressed his willingness to drop the land acquisition amendments. Just as the Congress party appeared to lose steam consequently, the Speaker of the House—a BJP member—suspended 25 Congress members from Parliament for their unruly behavior, adding fuel to fire. The monsoon session adjourned sine die without transacting any meaningful business. The special session of Parliament, contemplated for late September, was abandoned by the government realizing that the Opposition is in no mood to compromise.
Sadly, Modi had little to offer on the above cases; he did not even appear on the floor of Parliament. Neither had he made any mention of the above in his Independence Day address on August 15th. On the other hand, the Opposition parties stopped offering constructive opposition; instead they learnt to stall. In the process, Parliament basically was turned into what the President of India called a “combative arena.”
So what are the lessons and prognosis? A party controlling a log-rolling majority could lead to party dictatorship, which is but a short step towards Prime Minister’s dictatorship. India is not unaware of this experience; they only need to remember what happened with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. Thus, while the government must realize that Parliament matters, the Opposition ought not indulge in complete non-cooperation. Respect for the institution, and its rules must be accorded, and civility in discourse upheld. Does this mean political parties in the largest working democracy lost faith in Parliamentary democracy? Probably not. Political institutions in India are well entrenched. And Indian democracy is vibrant—perhaps too vibrant to be good for governance at times. The only need is to make them work—a rather onerous responsibility for all political parties.
Krishna K. Tummala is Professor Emeritus of Public Administration at Kansas State University. He just returned from a research trip in India where he was a Resident Fellow, Institute of Public Enterprise, Hyderabad, July 2015.