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Data Rewind: A Shadow on Parliament’s Ability to Function Independently of the Executive

Data on suspension of MPs, other analysis and accounts reveal that parliament functioning independently of the ruling party is an important component of a healthy democracy.
India’s new parliament building. Photo: PIB

New Delhi: On September 21, Lok Sabha MP Ramesh Bidhuri of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hurled communal slurs and abuse at Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) member Danish Ali in the Lok Sabha.

Bidhuri’s remarks were expunged from the records, but despite Opposition pressing for his suspension, only a ‘warning’ by the Lok Sabha Speaker was given.

As per data collated by The Hindu, official statistics show that “members from non-BJP parties have been suspended for less severe offences in the recent past.” While referring to the Mahabharata, Congress member Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury had said that the “king” should not be blind to what is happening against women, “whether in Hastinapur or Manipur.” He was suspended on August 10 for “gross, deliberate and repeated misconduct.” The Privileges Committee revoked his suspension on August 30. Earlier, on July 24, Rajya Sabha chairman Jagdeep Dhankhar suspended Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) member Sanjay Singh for the remainder of the monsoon session after Singh rushed to the well of the House and pointed at the chair amid sloganeering by Opposition MPs.

The session-wise suspension of members in each term of the last four Lok Sabhas (UPA-I, from 2004 to 2009; UPA-II, from 2009 to 2014; NDA-I, from 2014 to 2019; and NDA-II, from 2019 to present), reveal that there have been 144 suspensions in the Lok Sabha in the past four terms. The first 10-year period saw 50 suspensions, while the remaining 94 suspensions (65%) took place during the NDA’s terms. No BJP members have been suspended during the NDA’s terms.

There is a rising trend of MPs suspended in bulk, notes The Hindu. The 16th Lok Sabha, elected in 2014, saw the highest number of suspensions (81) with 49 members being suspended in the 16th session. The majority of suspended members belonged to the Congress, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the TDP (Telugu Desam Party).

Separation of powers

The essence of a functional liberal democracy is the separation of powers between its pillars. Most important is the relationship between the legislature and the executive, as the executive is accountable to the legislature. Data, analysis and comments have found the record in the past ten years being a poor one.

This was brought to a focus in September 2020, when three controversial farm bills were passed without any division in the House, during a din, without the House being in order, no pre-legislative discussion or debate.

Global indices note inability to hold executive to account

Functioning of Parliament has drawn the attention of those studying Indian democracy and global indices which now count India as an “electoral autocracy” (V-Dem). India has also been called out by IDEA International (which said civil liberties are now as they were in 1975),Freedom House (which called India “partly free”) and The Economist index (in which India saw a sharp slump). The 2023 V-Dem report refers to India as “one of the worst autocratisers in the last 10 years” in a blurb on page 10 and places India in the bottom 40-50% on its Liberal Democracy Index at rank 97. India also ranks 108 on the Electoral Democracy Index and 123 on the Egalitarian Component Index.

The inability of Parliament to hold the executive (BJP-led Union government) to account is an important reason for the slide. IDEA International recorded last year that the effectiveness of parliament fell, and “by 9.6%”. IDEA International has been evaluating democracies since 1975 and has a Global State of Democracy Index (or the GSoD) it releases which measures aspects of a democracy, vital to its health and survival. It records that India has “suffered decreases in all of the sub-attributes” of the metric of checks on government, namely Effective Parliament, Judicial Independence and Media Integrity.

Of the five indices used by V-Dem to capture democratic values, the deliberative democracy index, which measures whether political decisions are made through public reasoning or emotional appeals and coercion, has recorded a sharp slump since 2014.

In ‘Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts’, analysis by Professor Tarunabh Khaitan, then at the faculty of law, Oxford University found erosion of the power of the Opposition and their inability to function as they should be able to do in parliament since 2014. This was detrimental to India’s democracy, he concluded. “Not only did the BJP government seek to undermine electoral accountability to the citizens, it also systematically assaulted institutions that seek horizontal accountability from the political executive. These political institutions provided a voice to the Opposition, and therefore invited frequent ”constitutional hardball” tactics from the government.”

2023: Disqualifications of MPs

Lakshadweep MP P.P. Mohammed Faisal of the Nationalist Congress Party and Waynad MP Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party were disqualified in 2023, but returned soon after convictions announced by the courts in their cases were overturned. A special MP/MLA court sentenced Ram Shankar Katheria, BJP MP from Etawah, for two years in an assault and rioting case this year, but he was not disqualified as he managed to obtain a stay.

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