Vandita Mishra writes: Parliament’s special session could have been about this

The special session of Parliament, five day long, starts tomorrow, with a question. What does a “special” session mean in times when the House has, in “normal” sessions, become a bare and denuded place?

Will a special session be specially full of absences, the lack of discussion and debate? Specially full of legislation pushed through by government without adequate consultation or scrutiny, and measures to mute dissenting voices and shrink spaces for questions? Specially a site for framing the Opposition’s inability to use its imagination, not just raise decibel levels, to make itself heard?

The fact is that Parliament has increasingly become a bystander on all major issues, which mostly play outside its precincts. Inside, MPs may get to make a speech on a good day, but they don’t listen to each other most days.

The manner of announcement of this special session itself highlighted Parliament’s normalised tongue-tiedness. The agenda was kept secret from the Opposition and the people, the secrecy broken only partially and belatedly — at the time of writing, we know that there will be a discussion tomorrow, on the first day, on the “Parliamentary journey of 75 years starting from Samvidhan Sabha”, and four bills have been listed for passage. They include one which seeks to change the method of appointment and conditions of service of the Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners — it has raised questions about whether the government intends to downgrade the poll monitor.

For the rest, an Opposition and people in the dark have been forced to read between the government’s lines — there has been speculation about “legislative grenades”, like the long-pending women’s reservation bill, a commemoration by the government of the government for its successful hosting of the G20, or a shift of parliamentary bag and baggage to the new building the PM inaugurated in May.

But what could a special session have been about, outside of this cloak and dagger drama, in the run-up to general elections in 2024?

It could have hosted a discussion on institutions, on the necessity for the executive, even and especially one armed with a large mandate, to respect their dignity and autonomy. The Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, which proposes to align the salary, allowance and service conditions of the CEC and two ECs with those of the cabinet secretary — currently, these are equivalent to those of an SC judge — could have provided the perfect cue.

A discussion is needed on how this bill fits a disturbing pattern — of a domineering government asserting its supremacy over and having its way vis a vis all other institutions, even monitorial institutions like the EC that are an essential part of the checks and balances of a constitutional system.

Deliberation on this could also have touched upon some of the reasons why the BJP government, in particular, seeks to subdue and conquer, why it has taken executive excess and imperviousness to a new high, or low.

Perhaps part of the BJP government’s take-no-prisoners approach comes from its own favourite myth about itself, which is also its driving force — of being a party in power and yet under siege; of having been, for long, the outsider at-the-gates in the Congress system; of coming up against an old, air-tight consensus that gives it no space, and of therefore having to dismantle public spaces and institutions and remake them in its own image in order to announce its political arrival.

Perhaps such a discussion could have pointed to the ways in which the BJP’s will-to-dominate is also self-harming behaviour — in a large and diverse country, the rules of the game are necessary not just to accommodate those who are not in power, but also to shore up the legitimacy of the powerful. That is, no government can injure the EC without also injuring itself.

For the Opposition, the special session could have provided a deliberative space to engage with a wider question that remains largely unasked in the race to 2024: What will it take to offer a political alternative?

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The recent decision by the 28-party Opposition alliance, INDIA, to put out a list of 14 TV anchors that it will boycott, because they peddle hate and bigotry, has cast unflattering light on the Opposition, not the genuinely discredited journalists on its list.

The list-making shows that the Opposition may not have the BJP’s strong arm, and its control over agencies, but it mimics the BJP’s worst tendency — its politics of labelling and name-calling, which leaves no room, on both sides of the dividing line, for dialogue, persuasion and negotiation.

Most of all, such a politics goes against the parliamentary spirit. A special session would have, therefore, been the apt place to talk about the several ways in which that spirit is being bruised, by government and Opposition, more by government than Opposition, and on the possibilities of restoring and reviving it.

Till next week,


Must Read Opinions from the week:

– Editorial, “Withdraw the list”, September 16

– Derek O’Brien, “Goodbye, Central Hall”, September 15

– Alok Rai, “One Big Fat Election”, September 14

– Suhas Palshikar, “Back to the brink”, September 13

– Sanjay Srivastava, “Not being at home”, September 12

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