Winter session: Steamroll the legislative agenda

Live Mint, November 20, 2014

Only a joint sitting of Parliament can ensure meaningful legislative action

The winter session of Parliament that commences on Monday will be the first major test of the Narendra Modi government?s intent to start reforms that require legislative approval. Much of what India needs for speeding its economic growth requires amending old laws or discarding them altogether.

The path for the Modi government will not be easy. Its Parliamentary position is askew for the tasks it needs to carry out. In the Lok Sabha it has a commanding majority while in the Rajya Sabha the situation is almost reverse. In the 245-seat upper House, it has only 55 members. There are enough hints that opposition parties, including those from the former Janata stable, the Left parties and the Congress, may coordinate their activities in the Rajya Sabha to prevent the passage of any meaningful legislation. This is a recipe for a parliamentary logjam.

Some of the important Bills to be introduced in the winter session include one to convert the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance 2014, necessitated by the apex court?s judgment in the coal block allocations case, into a law; and amendments to the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, Motor Vehicles Act and the Negotiable Instruments Act.

At the moment there is no clarity if contentious amendments and Bills will be introduced in this session. These include, for example, those involving the new land acquisition law passed in 2013 and repealing of outdated labour laws. These laws need to be repealed or, at the very minimum, watered down drastically for India to acquire economic momentum in the coming years.

There are three options available to the government to carry out what is necessary. One, to try and build consensus on the Bills it wants passed. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan has called for an all-party meeting on Saturday but it is naive to expect consensus in India?s environment of political polarization so soon after a bitterly contested election. The confused leftism that pervades the ranks of the opposition makes any reasonable dialogue almost impossible. The second option is to wait for the session of Parliament to get over and then issue ordinances. But this will be futile. These ordinances will have to be brought before Parliament in the next session. As the composition of the Rajya Sabha will not change anytime soon, this will be a futile step fraught with judicial challenges to the ordinances. It will only create policy uncertainty, something that India needs to avoid at all costs.

The best bet for the government is to call for a joint session of Parliament. In a combined sitting of the houses, the National Democratic Alliance will be much stronger. When coupled with creative floor management, passage of all contentious Bills and amendments is possible.

This is a slightly complicated route but the only one that is feasible in the current situation. Article 108(1) of the Constitution permits the calling of a joint session of Parliament when a Bill is rejected by a House or when the houses have finally disagreed on the amendments to be made in a Bill or when more than six months elapse from the date of the reception of the Bill by the other House without the Bill being passed by it.

This session should be used to start proceedings to that end. The government should introduce amendments and Bills that are contentious in the Lok Sabha without wasting any further time. If this legislation is rejected in the Rajya Sabha, as is likely, that will, then, give it the reason it needs for a joint session. In all this, time is of the essence: for even if it acts now, passing these Bills and amendments in a joint session may still require anywhere up to six months. The opportunity cost for the Indian economy will be too heavy if the right steps are not taken now. This government should not forget the reasons for which it was voted to power. The more it delays taking the right legislative steps, the harder it will be to face the electorate with confidence five years later.

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