Editorials - 27-03-2021

The gradual deterioration in Parliament’s functioning has to be stopped if it is to fulfil its constitutional mandate

The Budget session of Parliament ended on Thursday, two weeks ahead of the original plan, as many political leaders are busy with campaigning for the forthcoming State Assembly elections. This follows the trend of the last few sessions: the Budget session of 2020 was curtailed ahead of the lockdown imposed following the novel coronavirus pandemic, a short 18-day monsoon session ended after 10 days as several Members of Parliament and Parliament staff got affected by COVID-19, and the winter session was cancelled. As a result, the fiscal year 2020-21 saw the Lok Sabha sitting for 34 days (and the Rajya Sabha for 33), the lowest ever. The casualty was proper legislative scrutiny of proposed legislation as well as government functioning and finances. While COVID-19 was undoubtedly a grave matter, there is no reason why Parliament could not adopt remote working and technological solutions, as several other countries did.

No Bill scrutiny

An important development this session has been the absence of careful scrutiny of Bills. During the session, 13 Bills were introduced, and not even one of them was referred to a parliamentary committee for examination.

Many high impact Bills were introduced and passed within a few days. The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which is the Bill to change the governance mechanism of Delhi — shifting governance from the legislature and the Chief Minister to the Lieutenant Governor — was introduced on March 15 in the Lok Sabha, passed by that House on March 22 and by Rajya Sabha on the March 24. Another Bill, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2021, amends the Mines and Minerals Act, 1957 to remove end-use restrictions on mines and ease conditions for captive mines; this Bill was introduced on March 15 and passed by both Houses within a week. A Bill — The National Bank for Financing Infrastructure and Development (NaBFID) Bill, 2021 — to create a new government infrastructure finance institution and permit private ones in this sector was passed within three days of introduction. The Insurance (Amendment) Bill, 2021, the Bill to increase the limit of foreign direct investment in insurance companies from 49% to 74% also took just a week between introduction and passing by both Houses. In all, 13 Bills were introduced in this session, and eight of them were passed within the session. This quick work should be read as a sign of abdication by Parliament of its duty to scrutinise Bills, rather than as a sign of efficiency.

Consulting House panels

This development also highlights the decline in the efficacy of committees. The percentage of Bills referred to committees declined from 60% and 71% in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-09) and the 15th Lok Sabha, respectively, to 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha and just 11% in the current one. Parliamentary committees have often done a stellar job. For example, the committee that examined the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code suggested many changes to make the Code work better, and which were all incorporated in the final law. Similarly, amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act were based on the recommendations of the Committee.

Money Bill classification

The last few years have seen the dubious practice of marking Bills as ‘Money Bills’ and getting them past the Rajya Sabha. Some sections of the Aadhaar Act were read down by the Supreme Court of India due to this procedure (with a dissenting opinion that said that the entire Act should be invalidated). The Finance Bills, over the last few years, have contained several unconnected items such as restructuring of tribunals, introduction of electoral bonds, and amendments to the foreign contribution act.

Similarly, this year too, the Finance Bill has made major amendments to the Life Insurance Corporation Act, 1956. As this is a Money Bill, the Rajya Sabha cannot make any amendments, and has only recommendatory powers. Some of the earlier Acts, including the Aadhaar Act and Finance Act, have been referred to a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. It would be useful if the Court can give a clear interpretation of the definition of Money Bills and provide guide rails within which Bills have to stay to be termed as such.

During this session, the Union Budget was presented, discussed and passed. The Constitution requires the Lok Sabha to approve the expenditure Budget (in the form of demand for grants) of each department and Ministry. The Lok Sabha had listed the budget of just five Ministries for detailed discussion and discussed only three of these; 76% of the total Budget was approved without any discussion. This behaviour was in line with the trend of the last 15 years, during which period 70% to 100% of the Budget have been passed without discussion in most years.

The missing Deputy Speaker

A striking feature of the current Lok Sabha is the absence of a Deputy Speaker. Article 93 of the Constitution states that “... The House of the People shall, as soon as may be, choose two members of the House to be respectively Speaker and Deputy Speaker….” Usually, the Deputy Speaker is elected within a couple of months of the formation of a new Lok Sabha, with the exception in the 1998-99 period, when it took 269 days to do so. By the time of the next session of Parliament, two years would have elapsed without the election of a Deputy Speaker. The issue showed up starkly this session when the Speaker was hospitalised. Some functions of the Speaker such as delivering the valedictory speech were carried out by a senior member.

The deterioration in Parliament’s functioning is not a recent phenomenon. For example, the Monsoon Session of 2008 had set some interesting records. That session went on till Christmas, as the government wanted to use a parliamentary rule that a no-confidence motion could not be moved twice within a session; instead of a winter session, the monsoon session was extended with breaks. That session also saw eight Bills being passed in the Lok Sabha within 17 minutes. The following Lok Sabha (2009-14) saw a lot of disruptions to work, with about a third of its scheduled time lost. Some things have improved: over the last few years, we have seen most Bills being discussed in the House and have had less disruptions. However, the scrutiny of Bills has suffered as they are not being referred to committees.

Parliamentary scrutiny is key

Parliament has the central role in our democracy as the representative body that checks the work of the government. It is also expected to examine all legislative proposals in detail, understand their nuances and implications of the provisions, and decide on the appropriate way forward. In order to fulfil its constitutional mandate, it is imperative that Parliament functions effectively. This will require making and following processes such as creating a system of research support to Members of Parliament, providing sufficient time for MPs to examine issues, and requiring that all Bills and budgets are examined by committees and public feedback is taken. In sum, Parliament needs to ensure sufficient scrutiny over the proposals and actions of the government.

M.R. Madhavan is President of PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi

Societal fissures and ideological and cultural divisions have resulted in an offensive and antagonistic politics

Israel is past its fourth election in less than two years, is in search of political stability and, once again, faces the crisis of not having a leader who can form a coalition government and survive a full term. The election results now have highlighted a fractured mandate where there are 13 parties, most with single digit seats; it is only the Likud party (right-wing, nationalist and neo-liberal) led by Benjamin Netanyahu that has 30 seats out of 120 seats of Parliament. Mr. Netanyahu has lost his political magic but Israel is unable to go beyond him.

Coalitions are the reality

The Likud party could very well be in a position to get to 61 seats with its meagre 30 seats by forming a coalition with other smaller parties that share the same ideological leanings and have the usual partners such as Shas (Haredi religious party with nine seats), Yamina, the new right with seven seats, Religious Zionist Party with its six seats, and United Torah Judaism with its seven seats. Single party majority is a mirage in Israel, while a coalition government is the reality. Yet, the Likud plus these do not ensure that the figure of 61 can be reached and this is where Mr. Netanyahu is an issue. Parties led by second-rank leaders such as Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz or Gideon Sa’ar are opposed to him as he is the first Israeli Prime Minister on trial for three criminal cases — bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Benny Gantz formed a coalition with Mr. Netanyahu in the last election, in 2020, even when he campaigned on a single agenda, which was ‘No Netanyahu’. It was a political calculation that affected his seat tally. In the last three elections, he got seats in the order of 35-33-33, respectively.

Weak spots in the system

The Prime Minister in Israel does not have to resign when charged and indicted in court — any other Minister or the President of state has to step down. This strange legal loophole has given a very long rope to Mr. Netanyahu who not only is in office but could contest election after election. Israel does not have a full drawn Constitution; it does not have an institutional mechanism therefore to uphold public trust and the legal dignity of the highest political office.

For a decade it has been Mr. Netanyahu who could form multiple alliances and coopt smaller parties (ultra-religious, economic liberals, nationalist, settlers, etc.) behind his strong leadership. Since 1996 (the year Mr. Netanyahu became Prime Minister for the first time), governments in Israel have lasted for an average 2.3 years. Once a unifier and a decisive leader, he has now become the dividing figure in Israeli domestic politics. The last four elections, (in April and September 2019, March 2020 and now on March 23, 2021) have pushed the limits of Israeli electoral politics to new levels. Israel is now a leading democracy in the world with the most frequent national elections, a phenomenon which has exposed its deep-seated internal weakness. Israel does not have a basic common agenda any more.

For a long time, the issue of its conflict with neighbours and the Palestinians has served as a catalyst for national politics. But now, societal cleavages and ideological and cultural divisions have resulted in an offensive and antagonistic politics. Israel stands deeply divided and exposed.

Disintegration of society

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a Tel Aviv-based think tank, published its annual as well as a decade-long forecast of Israel’s security at the end of 2020. The INSS is a highly ranked think tank that works very closely with the state. An inevitable war with the Hezbollah and Iran’s nuclearisation are the two top threats to Israel’s national security projected in 2021-2030. The third issue that has posed another existential threat is the internal disintegration of Israeli society, leading to the loss of its social cohesion and its identity as a Jewish and democratic state. The long phase of dysfunction in the Israeli government (during the last decade when Mr. Netanyahu has been leading the most number of governments), is one of the greatest threats. This is the first time that the INSS’s report points to internal domestic issues (not the conventional threats from outside) as being a major threat to the country’s strategic situation.

Israeli society was divided from the country’s inception, but Zionist labour was successful in working a common consensus.In-gathering of exiles, having the desert bloom and reviving the land of milk and honey were some of the threads used to weave a story that could unite culturally diverse and multiple ethnic groups among Jews.

After the rise of right-wing nationalist parties and a religious revival, post the 1967 war, there has been no common story to work with. Domestic schisms became aggravated and the multiple crises during COVID-19 did not help strengthen the fragile socio-economic fabric. All this affects the stability and the shared values that have characterised Israeli society and the way of life. Meanwhile, Israeli governments mirror the Indian phenomenon of the ‘aaya ram, gaya ram’ kind ofcoalition woes.

The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, has been expressing his anguish over this situation for a long time now. While the last government failed to complete even a year and collapsed, he said “there is a pressing need to revive the trust between the citizens of Israel and the state. That trust was damaged in the past year — seriously, maybe even critically”.

India must take note

The inner political crisis of Israel is a wake-up call for Indian democracy. There are many in India who look up to the Israeli model of a military-led national security, its abilities to retaliate and carry out surgical strikes as well as its aggressive pursuit of power. This model may not serve Indian national security in the long run as the Israeli story unfolds. Strong nations are often those with social cohesion, common values and an inner-capacity for dialogue and compromise. Many of my students are surprised that Israel is also a weak, vulnerable, deeply divided society — contrary to what they gather from stories of the Israeli Army, Mossad and television series such asFauda. Israel may not have a new stable government soon and there is already a situation developing — of a deadlock that might push Israelis to a fifth election. It is indeed a defining moment for Israeli democracy.

Khinvraj Jangid is Associate Professor and Director, Jindal Centre for Israel Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana

The Mumbai hospital fire shows that India needs to make public safety an absolute value

Firefighters keep reminding people that fire is a good servant but a bad master, and the blaze that engulfed a private COVID-19 hospital in Mumbai’s Bhandup area on Thursday night comes as a reminder of how true that axiom is. At least nine people died as flames and smoke spread through the facility housed in a mall. Coming soon after the fire that snuffed out the lives of infants in Bhandara, again in Maharashtra, the tragedy focuses attention on the failure to make fire safety a systemic imperative in public buildings. There is no clarity on where the inferno originated, and whether the hospital housed in a commercial building under ‘extraordinary circumstances’ for COVID-19 patients was equipped for the purpose. The majority of patients were evacuated and admitted to other hospitals. A solatium for the families of the victims has been announced by the State government, and predictable promises to investigate the incident have been made. These steps, though welcome, do little to change the image of decrepitude that marks policies on public safety in the country, and the generally ineffectual nature of inspections and certifications. Fire may be an accident, but the idea of protocols is to prevent it from having a devastating effect on lives and property. It should be pointed out that after a fire in Rajkot last November, the Supreme Court tooksuo motucognisance of the incident and issued directions, one of which was to task an officer with fire safety for each COVID-19 hospital. States have only themselves to blame, if their officers ignore such guidelines, and avoidable fires claim lives.

Hospital fires are a distinct entity in the literature on safety, since the presence of incapacitated patients, oxygen-suffused environments, plenty of air-conditioning and lack of sufficient physical space creates a devastating combination when disaster strikes. The National Disaster Management Guidelines of 2016 issued by the NDMA address these characteristics, with recommendations on infrastructural and systemic improvements — from comparative to ultimate safety — to reduce the risk of deadly fires. Yet, it is clear that even some of the basic recommendations, such as the availability of open space to move patients in an emergency, are beyond the scope of legacy buildings created for other purposes. What is feasible is for experts to assess the quality of infrastructure, specifically electrical installations, ensuring the retrofitting of structures with flame retardant materials and triaging of patients to reduce crowding. Recurring infernos should also convince States that they must create scientifically designed public health facilities that meet the needs of populous cities, reversing the policy of leaving this crucial function largely to for-profit entities where the imperative to cure is often pitted against cost and profit concerns.

SC must waive confidentiality rule and disclose reasons for rejecting AP CM’s charges

The Supreme Court has dealt with a grave matter concerning issues of judicial propriety with characteristic opaqueness. It has dismissed a complaint from Andhra Pradesh CM Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, containing explosive allegations against CJI-designate Justice N.V. Ramana, but declined to disclose the findings of an in-house inquiry. The rejection was disclosed on the Court’s website on the day CJI S.A. Bobde recommended Justice Ramana as his successor. Going by procedure, a committee of three judges must have inquired into the charges. The lack of transparency is based on a 2003 judgment of the apex court that any inquiry under this procedure is meant only for “the information and satisfaction” of the CJI, and is not meant for the public. However, this may be an instance when not many will agree with the confidentiality norm. The allegations came from a person holding the high office of CM, and the crux of his grievance was that the A.P. High Court was hostile to him and his regime due to the influence wielded by Justice Ramana. Further, he accused the judge of proximity with Mr. Reddy’s political rivals and alleged involvement of his family members in a land scam that involved prior knowledge that Amaravati was to be declared the State’s capital and speculative buying of land there. There is little to commend the requirement of confidentiality in a probe of this nature, as the dismissal of the complaintipso factomeans that a serving CM has levelled false and motivated charges against a senior Supreme Court judge as well as those in the High Court. Mr. Reddy is surely in contempt of court if the committee found no merit in the allegations that he raised in a signed affidavit.

Should the confidentiality rule always hold the field? Is it possible to dismiss the allegations without disclosing who were heard as witnesses and what material was considered as evidence? Was Mr. Reddy given an opportunity to substantiate his charges? And, does he get to know the conclusions? The unsavoury charges are bound to come up in some form or the other again. The A.P. government has appealed against a High Court judgment that stayed a police investigation in the Amaravati land issue. Mr. Reddy faces prosecution in corruption cases himself. A key allegation against him is that his animosity towards Justice Ramana arises from an order that a Bench headed by the latter had passed, that cases involving elected representatives be expedited. In a separate development, the High Court had also ordered a CBI probe into social media posts targeting judges. The charges being bandied about are overtly political, and the episode has become unpleasant. Notwithstanding the confidentiality norm laid down for in-house probes, it behoves the Court to demonstrate that justice was both done and was seen to be done.