Eight opposition members of parliament, arbitrarily suspended from the Rajya Sabha, spent last night at a protest dharna at the foot of the Gandhi statue within the compound of parliament. The conduct of the government and its officials in the Rajya Sabha, which led to such a development, brings it no credit. The country was denied the opportunity to witness the proceedings in the Rajya Sabha on Sunday when the three bills related to farmers were being discussed. There was an arbitrary decision to switch off the live television proceedings. If indeed, as Parliamentary Affairs Minister Prahlad Joshi said, there was “goondaism” and “grossly unruly behavior” by the opposition, surely it would have been in the government’s interest to allow the live telecast to damn the opposition in public opinion. The truth is that if such adjectives are to be used, they would be more applicable to the actions the government took to ensure the passage of the bills.
The government pushed through the bills in a brazen violation of all norms and procedures including the denial to members of parliament of the right to vote on a bill, or an amendment. This is guaranteed under the rules that govern the parliament of India. It is not just a technicality but intrinsically linked to the accountability of MPs to their constituents. Even if a single MP wants to vote, she has that right. For example, Left MPs, even though far reduced in numbers, have insisted on a vote on amendments they moved against labour-related bills even knowing that they would not succeed. It is an expression of commitment to a principle and a policy. In January last year, Lok Sabha MP Owaisi demanded a vote on the constitution amendment bill for reservation for “weaker sections among general castes.” His demand was accepted. Only three voted against the bill, but the right of the member was upheld.
On Sunday, it was this right which was brazenly eliminated in the Rajya Sabha. When members demanded a vote, it was refused. This was a clear subversion of parliamentary norms, an undermining of the fundamental premise of parliamentary democracy, that of the rights and duties of the opposition. The following day, the opposition moved a no-confidence motion against the presiding officer, also an unprecedented step. It is no secret that the presiding officer was only following the guidelines and wishes of the government in his unusual conduct of the house.
The reason is clear enough: the government knew it was going to lose a crucial vote. It started on the issue of a vote on the Statutory Resolution which had earlier been moved by CPI(M) MP KK Ragesh under Article 123 (2) a of the constitution to disapprove the ordinances. “An Ordinance promulgated shall be laid before both House of Parliament and shall cease to operate at the expiration of six weeks from the reassemble of Parliament, or, if before the expiration of that period resolutions disapproving it are passed by both Houses…” Ragesh repeatedly asked for a division on the resolution. He was ignored. In other words, a constitutional right was subverted. The next issue raised by the opposition was on the resolution to refer the bills to a Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha. According to parliamentary procedure, if a certain number of MPs make a demand for a Select Committee, it has to be put to the house for its opinion. On this resolution, there was agreement among almost all opposition parties including parties like the BJD, the TRS, Akali Dal and also the AIADMK, who usually vote with the government.
The government was afraid that if put to vote, the resolution would be passed and the bills then would have to go for scrutiny to a Select Committee. Once again, an essential procedure was deliberately violated to save the position of the government. No vote was allowed. The presiding officer then rushed through the reading of the two bills, refused to allow a vote on any of the large number of amendments moved, and with a voice vote, declared the bills as adopted.
Some extremely important amendments were moved by the MPs which, if put to vote, would have embarrassed the government and nailed its false claims on the bills. For example, the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues have been claiming that the bills will ensure that farmers get the best prices and that MSP guarantees will continue. An amendment moved by the CPI(M) MPs was that the price offered to the farmer could not be below the declared MSP for that particular produce. Another amendment suggested a similar legal guarantee for contract farming. If a vote had been allowed, the treasury benches would have been thoroughly exposed and their bluff called.
Since these bills have been passed in violation of the accepted procedure, it is incumbent on the President of India under Article 111 to send these back for the consideration of the Rajya Sabha. There is a precedent when President Abdul Kalam sent back a bill to parliament in 2013 concerning the Office of Profit issue. Of course, he had not been nominated by the then government but by its predecessor. Will the President of India fulfil his duty to protect constitutional guarantees?
This assault on parliamentary norms bears the stamp of a Prime Minister who has not in the past been bothered much by constitutional or legal restrictions to his preferred methods of governance. For example, ordinances are supposed to be promulgated only on an urgent matter. Article 123 specifically states that “under circumstances exist which render it necessary for immediate action.” In the present case, none of the three bills connected with farmers come in a category which requires “immediate action.”
But Modi-ji likes Raj through ordinances. Within a few months of his taking office in 2014, he brought an ordinance to nullify certain important provisions of the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Act 2013 which related to environment impact assessments, public hearings and consent of farmers before acquisition. He tried three times to push it through. But he was prevented from snatching away farmers’ rights by the fact that he did not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. Ultimately, the ordinance lapsed. He brought a similar ordinance for reforms in mining laws. This was done without any consultation with Adivasi communities and their organisations, which were most affected by the ordinance. Once again, it was in the Rajya Sabha that there was opposition and the ordinance had to be sent to a Select Committee for scrutiny.
The other aspect is that since an ordinance has to be replaced a by law passed by parliament within six weeks, it provides a loophole to escape the scrutiny of the process of Standing Committees whose procedures of scrutiny also allow for and encourage consultation with affected sections. In this case, farmers would have had the opportunity to give their opinions. This has also been denied. The three ordinances were brought precisely to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and to avoid consultation with farmers. This is a further dimension of the assault on parliamentary democracy.
Who benefits from the bills? Why are the farmers out on the streets protesting? Why did a minister from the longest-serving ally of the ruling NDA have to, in the wake of the growing protest, resign from the cabinet? Why did even the friendly parties who usually vote with the government step back? Why did the farmers’ body affiliated to the RSS make public its disapproval? The bills push for corporatisation of agriculture, against the interests of farmers. Farmers will be at the mercy of markets controlled by multinational agribusinesses and corporates. Hoarding and profiteering will be legalized, leading to high prices of essential commodities which benefit not the farmer but big traders. Moreover, many of the clauses in the bills are under the jurisdiction of state governments. These bills also reflect the dangerous process of centralization of power, by taking away the rights of state governments, being aggressively pursued by the Modi Government.
At a time of the pandemic, governments across the world, including those wedded to neo-liberal measures and theories, are having to ensure relief including direct cash transfers to different sections of their working populations. In the United States, because of the fall in prices of agricultural products and the disruption of the markets related to the pandemic, even the Trump administration, not known for farmer care, has given a 16 billion-dollar subsidy for farmers to cover, according to their calculation, 80 per cent of the losses they suffered between January to May this year. This amounts to 1.2 lakh crore rupees, apart from other farm subsidies they receive. Of course the motivation may in the American case be the forthcoming elections. Modi-ji does not have those concerns.
In present day India, the arrogance of power is supreme. The Prime Minister has declared this fraudulent passage of the bills as a historic day for kisans. Farmers have given their first response. They and their organisations across India have resolved to step up their struggle starting with joint actions on September 25. Many political parties have extended their support to the farmers struggle against the bills.
Modi-ji and his government may realize that the suspension of eight members of parliament and pushing through bills in the way that was done may prove to be more costly than they had calculated.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.
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