Irony is dying a slow death in the hallowed precincts of the 1927 edifice held up by 144 columns. Every five years, the Constitution affords Indians an opportunity to elect an MP to represent their cause in Parliament. The law under which the MPs are elected was christened by the founding fathers as The Representation of the People Act for good reason. The moot question is: are you being represented by your MP?
On the eve of the monsoon session, this column opened with a cynical observation: “This week the elected representatives will troop into Parliament to represent the electors. Ostensibly!” Clearly, the use of the adverb ‘ostensibly’ has stood the test of time. For three weeks, the nation has been witness to a spectacle of narrow interests, hijacking of Rs 1.5 crore per hour taxpayer paid time for the amplification of political polemics and subjugation of public interests.
There is no disputing the importance of the issues which the opposition was flagging whether it was the allegations of snooping via Pegasus, the stranglehold of fuel prices and inflation on family budgets, unemployment, or the future of farm laws. It is also true that since the 1990s when P V Narasimha Rao perfected the doctrine of thwarting the opposition with the rule book, parties in power have converted the rules of conducting the House into instruments of denial.
The four-week Monsoon Session was an opportunity for MPs to critique, question, confer with the government on issues agitating those struggling to preserve life and livelihoods. The questions include the issue of compensation for Covid deaths, the many hiccups holding up vaccination, opening up of schools for children grounded at home for over a year, state of small businesses, joblessness and the state of preparedness for the third wave. Instead, the issues, and the urgency for answers, were buried in the din of politics.
Of course, the BJP, as it would, did try to occupy the moral high ground. But the moral high ground in Indian politics is verily a seismic zone. As the authors of the ‘it is the government’s responsibility to run the House not the opposition’ argument, the BJP’s posture is politically perilous. If Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko immortalised the line ‘greed is good’, the BJP immortalised the argument ‘obstruction is good politics’. To use a quaint colloquial expression, what separates the national parties is ‘a distinction without difference’. Parties when in Opposition do exactly that which they hold as condemnable when in power.
In 1997, to commemorate the golden jubilee of Independence, political parties passed a resolution grandly titled ‘Agenda for India’. They promised to preserve the prestige of Parliament, conform entirely to the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business, assure inviolability of Question Hour, not shout slogans and refrain from entering sacred areas of the house. The resolution was forgotten within weeks in the wake of the Jain Commission Report and violated repeatedly during NDA-I by Congress and BJP and others during UPA-I and II.
Notwithstanding the heckling and placarding, the government managed to push through its legislative agenda over 20 bills, some in minutes, many with little or no discussion. Regardless of the regime in power, the fact is that legislation is drafted by the unelected and it is incumbent on elected members to analyse and audit provisions. Whether the parties agree or not, the harsh perception among the people is that by focussing on obstruction, the opposition virtually abdicated its responsibility to challenge or improve legislation moved by the government.
Consider some of the laws passed and the inadequacy of oversight. The amendment to the Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation Act enables the hike in deposit insurance from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. Every year for the past four years, roughly Rs 1 lakh crore has been written off by banks. Gross NPAs stand at around Rs 10 lakh crore. Is the DGIC adequately funded to meet claims from potential risks?
The amendment to the IBC code brings into play a “pre-packaged insolvency resolution process” for MSMEs. Do we know how many MSMEs have gone bust and how many are classified as distressed? As for the IBC, how much of the monies owed by defaulters are being recovered by banks? Why is it that over 21,000 cases with over `9 lakh crore in NPAs are pending at NCLT?
The General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Amendment Bill, 2021 is aimed at enabling disinvestment of public sector insurance companies. Which ones are on the block? Why are shares of government insurers, some listed after 2017, valued so poorly? And, what regulatory measures will be taken to prevent price gouging by private insurers as has happened in health insurance? The opposition, in its obsession for obstruction, has given the government a free pass over issues of governance affecting the daily lives of the people.
The road to electoral perdition is paved with misplaced notions primarily mistaking party’s private concern as public cause. The reflective among the opposition ranks must ask of themselves and their parties: what has the opposition achieved after three weeks. Attention is not the same as affiliation. Redemption requires parties to innovate their way out of the rut, go back to the basics and represent causes which resonate with the people.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India