Muting Parliament

The Hindu, September 25, 2020

The key functional traits of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government have descended to a new low in the context of the first session of Parliament to be held in the COVID-19 situation, scheduled to begin on September 14. Throughout its tenure of over six years across two terms, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has pursued a policy and practice of destructive interference with the functioning of key institutions of the Indian republic, including the judiciary, the Election Commission, the Reserve Bank of India, investigative agencies starting from State police departments to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and public accountability bodies such as the Central Information Commission (CIC). The idea was to subjugate them to the political agenda of the executive, divesting them of the autonomy and independence ingrained in their formative principles.

Parliament too has, from time to time, been subject to the incursions of the Modi government, especially in the manner in which it repeatedly resorted to the dubious “Money Bill route” to get contentious Bills (such as the one on Aadhaar) passed in the Rajya Sabha in its first term, when the ruling coalition had a weaker presence for long. The Rajya Sabha has no power to reject a money Bill.

Now the very parameters set by the government for the monsoon session of Parliament underscore the fact that its destructive interference in Parliament’s functioning too has acquired concrete, new forms, which are bound to debilitate the functions of the legislative pillar of Indian democracy.

New parameters

According to the new parameters, the session, whose duration has itself been cut short owing to the pandemic, will be divested, either in full or in parts, of three important components of parliamentary practice: Question Hour, Zero Hour and the Private Member’s Bill. Question Hour, which is to be scrapped completely, is considered as the liveliest daily engagement in Parliament, where Members of Parliament ask questions of Ministers, hold them accountable for the functioning of their Ministries and elicit information, which sometimes result in forcing the government to take purposive action.

The history of Question Hour is replete with such creative engagements, which have sometimes exposed irregularities in the functioning of Ministers and Ministries.

The important practice of members introducing a Bill will also not be allowed in the forthcoming session. In parliamentary systems the world over, a legislator who is not acting on behalf of the executive branch, can introduce a Bill in the legislature.

Zero Hour, which will only be curtailed and not done away with in the next session, is practically an innovation of the Indian parliamentary system. The practice originated in the first decade of Parliament when members demanded time to raise important constituency-related and national issues without prior notice.

These new parameters have evoked strong responses from leaders of various opposition parties, which have characterised the government’s move as an effort to reduce Parliament to a “notice board”. Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress’ Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, reportedly wrote to House Chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu arguing that it was inappropriate to curtail Zero Hour as it gave members an opportunity to raise issues of national importance and public concern.

Apparently, Azad suggested reduction of Zero Hour to half an hour, but insisted that there could be no compromise on a full Question Hour.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, the Lok Sabha member from Thiruvananthapuram, pointed out that “questioning the government is the oxygen of parliamentary democracy”, adding that the Modi government was attempting “to reduce Parliament to a notice-board”. He said: “The government uses its crushing majority as a rubber stamp for whatever it wants to pass. The one mechanism to promote accountability has now been done away with.”

Oppostition parties said that the new moves clearly exposed the government’s intent to cover up its lapses on various fronts, including its huge failure in handling the COVID situation. Speaking to Frontline, Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that the NDA government’s failure to control the spread of the coronavirus infection was all too evident, adding that this would have been highlighted and exposed in the session through various legitimate means and instruments of Parliament.

He said: “The effort now is to sabotage these very means and render ineffective parliamentary instruments such as Question Hour and Zero Hour. Evidently, the government has a lot to cover up, including the unjust manner in which it has handled diverse concerns related to COVID-19, including fair financial concerns of the State governments directly involved in combating the pandemic.”

Sitaram Yechury added that beyond the immediate concerns, the cancellation and curtailment of core functions of Parliament were also tantamount to reducing Parliament to a rubber stamp of the government.

“It is dictatorship under the guise of democracy. Under our Constitutional scheme of things, the government is accountable to Parliament and members of Parliament to the people. That’s the meaning of ‘We the People’ in the Constitution. It underscores the centrality of the sovereignty of the people in our Constitution. So, when you tinker with the parliamentary structure, you are actually attempting to dismantle the constitutional scheme of things,” he told Frontline.

Binoy Viswam, CPI member of the Rajya Sabha, also wrote to Venkaiah Naidu stating that suspension of Question Hour and the Private Member’s Bill was “unjust” and that they must be reinstated immediately. Viswam said suspending these procedures raised “serious questions” on the government’s “intent”.

Responding to these accusations, Anil Baluni, Rajya Sabha MP and the BJP’s national spokesperson, said the Union government was only following the new parameters adopted by various State Assemblies after March. “The State Assemblies that met after the imposition of the first lockdown in March, including big States such as Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab, have not had Question Hour sessions.”

Baluni also questioned the opposition’s moral authority to raise objections on the cancellation of Question Hour. “They have routinely disturbed the sessions in the past. The extent of disturbance can be gauged from statistics. It shows that out of the last eight sessions, a total of 162 hours was available for Question Hour, but only 59 hours could be used on account of disturbances caused by the opposition.”

Commenting on the whole sequence of events, including the new parameters and the the BJP leadership’s justifications, Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party (S.P.) president and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, told Frontline that the essence of all the stratagems employed by the BJP and the larger Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar were evident in the current manoeuvres too. He said: “Throughout the last six years, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have pursued an assortment of moves with different qualitative characteristics to advance their political and executive agenda. It includes bulldozing, tyrannising, curtailing, caricaturing and obfuscating parliamentary practice, public debate and interactions with people as a whole and some communities in particular.”

He added: “Manifestations of these diverse elements have been apparent time and again, including at significant junctures such as demonetisation, Kashmir interventions, the advancement of the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act] and now the COVID situation. The qualitative characteristics are advanced selectively or jointly as per the decisions of the leadership of the Sangh Parivar. As for the preparations for the forthcoming monsoon session, it seems that bulldozing, curtailing, caricaturing and obfuscating are all at play at the same time. The rights of parliamentarians have been bulldozed and curtailed and the justifications for that clearly involve caricaturing and obfuscation.”

Akhilesh Yadav was also of the view that the exposes of the manipulation of social media by the BJP during the general elections of 2014 and 2019, could well have played a role in the government resorting to such undemocratic practices.

Facebook controversy

Akhilesh Yadav’s reference was obviously to the exposes made by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and the raging controversy it has created over the role of the social media giant Facebook during the last two general elections in India. In a series of articles in August, WSJ revealed that Ankhi Das, Facebook’s public policy head in India, was openly partial to the BJP. One of the decisions that exposed her partiality was that she refrained from applying “hate speech rules” to at least four individuals and groups linked with the BJP who were “flagged internally for promoting or participating in violence”.

WSJ also revealed that Ankhi Das was even more vocal in internal communications within the company. According to the publication, she sent out an internal message to employees a day before the BJP swept to victory in the 2014 general elections, stating: “We lit a fire to his social media campaign and the rest is of course history.” She apparently went on to add: “It has taken thirty years of grassroots work to rid India of state socialism finally.”

WSJ said that when Modi was declared as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate in 2014, “Das made her sentiments on the race clear”. It said: “When a fellow staffer noted in response to one of her internal posts that BJP’s primary opponent, the Indian National Congress, had a larger following on Facebook than Modi’s individual page, Das responded: ‘Don’t diminish him by comparing him with INC. Ah well—let my bias not show!!!’” The WSJ series also pointed out that Facebook “declined to act after discovering that the BJP was circumventing its political ad transparency requirements”. Facebook rules stipulate that advertisers have to verify their identities and disclose them to users. But the BJP not only bought Facebook advertisements in its own name, it also “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars through newly created organisations that didn’t disclose the party’s role”.

Facebook did not take down the pages or flag the advertisements. “Instead, it privately raised the matter with the BJP, according to former employees in both India and the United States, where the decision was discussed,” the newspaper stated.

The spate of charges raised by WSJ have naturally generated a political controversy between the BJP and the opposition parties. More important, on September 2 the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology headed by Shashi Tharoor summoned Facebook India’s Managing Director Ajit Mohan and the MPs in the committee questioned him on various aspects of the controversy. Apparently, the committee gave Facebook some 100 questions to be answered in writing. After the meeting, all sides refrained from divulging details of the interactions. A Facebook spokesperson said: “We thank the Honourable Parliamentary Committee for their time. We remain committed to be an open and transparent platform, and to giving people voice and allowing them to express themselves freely.”

Shashi Tharoor said in a tweet: “In response to overwhelming media interest in the meeting of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology…. this is all I can say: We met for some three and a half hours and unanimously agreed to resume the discussion later, including with representatives of Facebook.” The run-up to the meeting was also marked by another controversy, with the BJP leaders questioning the committee’s locus standi to carry out the questioning of Facebook as its term was getting over on September 12.

There was also the issue of Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla directing Shashi Tharoor to not take up the issue of 4G Internet suspension in Jammu and Kashmir. The Speaker had pointed out in his directive that the matter was sub judice. Tharoor responded by stating that the issue was not before the Supreme Court. This prompted some BJP leaders to demand that the Speaker remove Tharoor as Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT. As it finally turned out, the Committee did not take up the issue of 4G Internet suspension in Jammu and Kashmir.

While the deliberations before the current IT Standing Committee can be considered as concluded, there is little doubt that the BJP’s manipulation of social media will be a big issue even during the monsoon session. The Congress had written two letters to Facebook on the WSJ revelations and the social media giant responded by stating that it has taken the concerns raised by the Congress seriously.

The Congress had made a specific demand to the company to set up a time-bound high-level inquiry into the functioning of its leadership team in India. However, Facebook’s response made no mention of this demand.

Battle of perceptions

Signals from the BJP leadership indicate that the party is getting ready for a fairly long battle of perceptions on the issue. This was evident from the surprising rearguard action initiated by Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad through a letter to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, in which he accused the social media platform of being biased against the ruling party. He went on to add that a “group of Facebook employees with international media is giving a free run to malevolent vested interests to cast aspersions on the democratic process of our great democracy”.

He said: “[The] Facebook India team, right from the India Managing Director to other senior officials, is dominated by people who belong to a particular political belief. People from this political predisposition have been overwhelmingly defeated… in successive free and fair elections. After having lost all democratic legitimacy, they are trying to discredit India’s democratic process by dominating the decision-making apparatus of important social media platforms… Facebook employees are on record abusing the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet Ministers of India while still working in Facebook India and managing important positions. It is doubly problematic when the bias of individuals becomes an inherent bias of the platform.”

Prasad also raised “serious concerns” about the Facebook India management deleting pages and “reducing” the reach of the supporters of “right-of-centre ideology” before the 2019 general elections.

Prasad’s barrage of accusations against a social media platform that allegedly helped his party in two consecutive elections initially surprised political observers. But soon it became apparent that this was part of a well-thought-out strategy when BJP MP and former Union Minister Colonel Rajvardhan Singh Rathore came up with an article stating that Facebook was dominated by Leftists who were trying to recreate an Orwellian propaganda climate in India.

Clearly, the forthcoming session of Parliament amid the raging pandemic is bound to be stormy. It could well be remembered as a session in which Indian parliamentarians showed heroism and courage by converging in Parliament in the midst of a pandemic and the political shenanigans of the ruling dispensation plunged parliamentary norms and conventions to unprecedented levels of ignominy.

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