In a normal year, the winter session of Parliament would have just ended and, like the rest of us, Members of Parliament (MPs) would be enjoying a well-earned holiday. This year, however, unlike the rest of us, they’ve been on vacation practically all the time. In 2020 Parliament convened for just 33 days. A glaring contrast to the 120 days in the first two decades or even the average of 70 in the last decade. For most of us 30 days is the length of a holiday. This year it’s the totality of time Parliament has functioned.
There are two points in the above paragraph but I only want to pursue one. The fact Parliament is not sitting for anywhere near enough days is undeniable but let’s pursue that on another occasion. Today I want to focus on the inexcusable decision not to hold the winter session at all.
The argument Covid-19 did not permit the session is specious. For a start, Parliament’s earlier functioning disproves it. The monsoon session was held in September when daily cases crossed 95,000. So how can a situation when the increase has reduced to under 25,000 be a credible reason for not holding the winter session?
More important, politicians and their parties recently participated in assembly, municipal and by-elections without any fear of contagion. They did so vigorously. Even crowded markets during the festive season did not produce a spike. So how can the government scrap an entire session of Parliament on the grounds the virus could threaten legislators and parliamentary staff? This is not just inconsistent, it’s illogical.
However, it’s not my case Parliament should have met without necessary caution. A carefully considered relaxation of its rules could have permitted both houses to function with fewer MPs or by remote attendance. If the House of Commons can adopt such procedures why on earth can’t our Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha?
These are arguments the government must address but shows no inclination to do so. But there’s a larger moral imperative why Parliament must function regardless of the circumstances. In fact, two. The lesser is when the government is encouraging the country to safely get back to work it’s contradictory, in fact hypocritical, for Parliament not to do the same. Every day hundreds of millions of Indians face the risk of catching the virus as they go to work. They do so to earn a living but also to ensure the economy grows. Why should MPs be an exception?
The bigger moral argument rests on the belief Parliament is special. It represents our nation. It speaks for us and symbolises our resolve. So if the temple of our democracy ducks the challenge of functioning in a time of the virus what’s the example it sets for the rest of us and what’s the message it sends to the world beyond our borders? I would say MPs have a greater moral duty than most other citizens. But do they agree? Are they even aware of it? And do they have any qualms about not fulfilling it?
I suspect the answer to all three questions is no. Even if I’m wrong, there’s another issue they need to address. When they’re not working should they be paid for not doing so? When you and I miss work our salaries are docked. MPs may not earn a fortune but they’re substantially recompensed in other ways. They get houses to live in, free telephones and travel and secretarial help. When Parliament isn’t functioning should not the cash component be reduced?
Let me end by recalling what BR Ambedkar believed is the truth about our MPs. When it was suggested in the Constituent Assembly that sittings of Parliament should be more frequent than once every six months, this is what he said: “My fear is, if I may so, that the sessions of Parliament would be so frequent and so lengthy that the members of the legislature would probably themselves get tired of the sessions.”
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal