Poonam I Kaushish
Monsoon embraced the country in its squelchy soaking tentacles even as the first day of Parliament’s 19-day monsoon session got off on a bitter note with Prime Minister Modi unable to introduce his new Ministers as a raucous Opposition created a din in both Houses resulting in adjournment pre-lunch. Questionably, will this session, like others before, be submerged in a verbal torrent of tu-tu-mein-mein leading to walk-outs and mayhem?
At one level, one could dismiss this as the Opposition muscle flexing as it battles for political legitimacy vis-à-vis the muscular BJP-led Government. At another, what matters is if this will be the shape of the days ahead driving another nail in the effective functioning and accountability of Parliament, thereby negating democracy.
In these testing Covid times scoring brownie points or indulging in dysfunctional and agitational politics over superficial controversies will only result in a disenchanted citizenry specially when they are exercised about a crippled economy, rising fuel and essential commodities prices, high unemployment, continuing farmers agitation, Chinese incursion in Ladhak etc. A time to put the Government on the mat, ask difficult and sharp questions for its failures.
Take Covid-19 mismanagement and vaccination policy which has become a terrain for political disputation, what-aboutery and propaganda. Undeniably the appointment of a new Union Health Minister is a tacit admission by the Government of its abject failure to generate a swift and strong surge response to the second wave.
“Over 40 crore people have been given the vaccine in ‘baahu’ (arms) and become ‘Baahubali’,” asserts Modi. The Health Ministry tom-toms 2,60,12,352 un-utilised vaccine doses are still available with States, UTs’ and private hospitals. Yet there is acute shortage thanks to the Government’s failures to procure sufficient vaccines early enough to lock in supplies or to plan for capacity expansion. In the Union Capital ‘no vaccines’ boards dot various centres. In fact, the Supreme Court seems to be more concerned about vaccine distribution as mass inoculation is the only defence against the virus or its variants.
Why is the Government still putting out over-optimistic forecasts for supply without being held to account? Hasn’t it learnt from the second wave failure? How does it intend to double vaccinate the entire adult population by December end? In May it said it had over 2.16 billion doses by year end but in an affidavit to Supreme Court the figure was 1.35 billion. Which one is correct? Also, it is promising many vaccines that have not yet cleared trials, while failing to induce import or manufacture of those that do.
Less said the better about the Covid death toll pan India. Every few days States revise numbers upwards underscoring their inept negligence of the second wave. Who can forget the sight of floating dead corpses in the Ganga. Who will be held accountable? But in an act of breathtaking effrontery, the UP Government is busy taking out full-page newspaper advertisements boasting of the ‘UP Model of Covid Control’. Sic.
Look at the Government’s temerity, be it Centre or States, to hike fuel prices in the midst of the pandemic wherein petrol crossed Rs 100 per litre in several cities over the past few weeks, feeding into inflation and putting pressure on household budgets. In Delhi it is Rs 101.84 per litre and diesel at Rs 89.87. In Mumbai Rs 107.83 and diesel Rs 97.45 respectively.
While the increase in petrol and diesel prices can be explained by rising international fuel prices to some extent, the high incidence of taxes by the Centre and States is unjustifiable which together constitute 58% of petrol’s retail selling price and 52% of diesel. Of this, the Centre’s excise duty is Rs 32-33 and the remaining VAT levied by States. Over the last few months, both continue to pass the buck over fuel tax reduction and resist making the first move. Time they stop the blame game and Parliament initiate serious discussion on it becoming part of GST or a rational tax regime.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy urban unemployment rates stood at 14.73% in May compared to 9.78% in April and rural unemployment rate at 10.63% as against 7.13% in April 2021. Add to this, consumers buying less and a slowing economy. Clearly, bread-and-butter issues are back on the economic delivery table.
It is nearly a year since the script is stuck between the Sarkar and farmers demand for repeal of the contentious farm laws. Both operating across a wide chasm of belief and trust. At one end, the farmers’ protest looks less political and more about subsistence given the sustained agrarian crisis. It emerges from the basic need for food that concerns all. Over 65% of the population lives and works in agriculture, or activities thereof. But, over the last 25 years the share of farming in the economy has shrunk from over 33% to 15%. Leading to public investment in kheti-baari steadily falling. High time the Government settled the issue.
The Government also needs to come clean on the continuing Chinese incursion in Ladhak which has reached another dead end. Alongside the unfolding Pegasus scandal of spying on politicians, judges, journalists etc.
It remains to be seen if obstructionism will continue and whether our polity will continue to drift along smugly without any shame, desire to turn a new page. Of late one sees the Treasury Benches finding ways to run away from crucial debates thanks to the Opposition providing perfect escape by creating pandemonium. With the functioning of Parliament costing Rs 2.5 lakhs per minute our Right Honourbles need to be sternly told they cannot squander aam janatas money.
The time has come for all MPs to see how they can strengthen Parliamentary democracy before people begin to mock them. One way is that on policy matters and legislative business Treasury and Opposition Benches rise above sectarian political loyalties and be guided by what the country needs, the sense of the House than the rule book.
Another is to make the Executive accountable by taking a leaf out of Westminster. The House of Commons has a-40 minutes a week “PM’s Hour” convention wherein MPs can question him on any issue.
It needs to be remembered that Parliament is the bedrock of our nation State. It represents citizens who expect it to function as the sovereign watchdog of their national interest. Constitutionally, the Executive is responsible and accountable to Parliament every second of the day. Its survival depends on its enjoying the confidence of the Lok Sabha. Nothing more, nothing less.
With sharp battle lines between Treasury and Opposition if this distrust continues it will only further devalue Parliament and lower its image. Thus, our leaders need to heed voices of reason. Tying up Parliament in trivia, sans business does not behove the world’s largest democracy. Time to change the rules to ensure accountability.
The value of this session will be gauged by its success in moving the national conversation forward. As leader of the world’s largest democracy Modi needs to remember a good statesman always learns from his opposition than from his supporters. Alongside our MPs must introspect about what kind of legacy they are going to leave behind. Will they allow Parliament to sink under the weight of its increasing decadence? INFA
Poonam I Kaushish