Democracy’s demand for compromise: Finding common ground in Parliament

In the midst of a turbulent monsoon session, there is a need for unity in India’s Parliament for the greater good of the country

| Updated: 30 July, 2023 5:19 pm IST
Given the changing times as well as his personal style, it is unlikely that PM Narendra Modi will back down in the face of opposition pressure

This monsoon session, some members have already been suspended, and there have been noisy scenes. Even a motion of no confidence has been admitted. These things happen in a vibrant democracy, but the best way forward is for Parliament to work unitedly for the good of the country.

Already, the nation has been shocked and ashamed by extremely distressing pictures of the public humiliation of women in Manipur. This is an opportunity for the August House to show the nation that members from various parties and ideologies can pull together, at least at such an awful moment.

Parliament is meant to express the views of the people at large, debating even divisive matters in order to agree on a way forward. Democracy demands compromise. That’s why it’s called the worst system of governance – except for all the others!

Already, it was sad to see the polarised refusal to compromise over the inauguration of the new Parliament building a couple of months ago. Most of the opposition was not present when it was opened.

This is sad because the building that houses Parliament is less important than each house of Parliament – which refers to the collective of its members rather than the building or chamber in which they meet. Their meetings, and the decisions they make matter far more than where they meet.

A very large swathe of the opposition had insisted that the President of India should inaugurate the new building. Those defending the government had pointed out that then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated the Parliament Annexe building (in October 1975, at the height of the Emergency).

Three parts of Parliament
The structure and conception of Parliament in the Constitution are as much more vital than the houses (members) as those houses are more important than the building. And Parliament is the cornerstone of constitutional architecture.

The Constitution stipulates that India’s Parliament comprises the President, the Rajya Sabha (chamber of states), and the Lok Sabha (the house of the people). Many citizens don’t realise that the President is a part of Parliament. Parliament’s supremacy inheres in the fact that the President – the head of state, in whose name the government functions, ambassadors are sent, and who is the supreme commander of the armed forces – is a part of Parliament.

By making the President a part of Parliament without being a member of either house, the Constitution-makers devised an ingenious and organic relationship between the President and the two houses, particularly the Lok Sabha.

The President calls Parliament into session by summoning the (members of the) Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. It is the President again who prorogues (ends) a session. The President is empowered to do so even while the houses are in session, i.e., even before the Speaker has adjourned the house ‘sine die’ at the end of a session.

Only the President can call Parliament back into session once the President has prorogued it. Of course, the Constitution enjoins the President to act on the advice of the council of ministers, headed by the Prime Minister.

However, the stamp of authority for a new Lok Sabha is the address of the President to the members of both houses of Parliament, when she summons them for the first meeting after national general elections. In case there was to be a dispute over which group had actually been elected, the inauguration of the first session by the President would give the stamp of authority to that gathering as the country’s Parliament.

Also, it is for the President to appoint as Prime Minister the person he or she believes has the confidence of the Lok Sabha. The latter then becomes the leader of the house and head of the executive – which governs in the name of the President.

The President’s decision on who appears to have ‘the confidence of the house’ becomes crucial when no single party, coalition, or leader has the clear support of the majority of Lok Sabha members. And, if the President believes that the council of ministers has lost the ‘confidence of the house,’ he/she can call for fresh elections, even dissolve the Lok Sabha before doing so.

The Constitution has placed the Vice President too in Parliament, as ex officio chair of the chamber of states, even though (like the President) he is not a member of either house.

Speaker is supreme in the House
The Prime Minister heads the government, but in Parliament, he/she is (normally) the leader of the Lok Sabha, and answerable to members of both houses. The argument that there is a separation of powers in India (put forward some weeks ago by AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi) is flawed. Unlike in France or the US, India’s Constitution organically intertwines the executive and the legislature.

In Parliament, the Prime Minister is subject to the decisions of the Speaker, which cannot be challenged by any authority.

Legend has it that, soon after the first elections were held in 1952, India’s then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent a message to the Speaker, asking the latter to come and discuss the agenda for the first session. The Speaker told the messenger: The Speaker does not come to the Prime Minister, the leader of the house comes to the Speaker.

The Speaker heads the Lok Sabha and is responsible for maintaining the proprieties, functioning, and dignity of the house. Nehru went to the Speaker’s chamber and apologised.

A few years later, Nehru praised the then-young Atal Behari Vajpayee in the house. And, many years later, Vajpayee showered praise on Nehru. But times have changed, not just in India’s politics but in the political milieux in most large countries.

That organic cohesion at the apex of national politics lasted until the beginning of this century. It has given way now, not only in India but in several large countries.

Given the changing times as well as his personal style, it is unlikely that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will back down in the face of opposition pressure. One still wishes that the government would find a way to bring about organic cohesion.

David Devadas is a journalist and security, politics and geopolitics analyst
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own

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