Opposition Silenced, Journalists Barred: New Normal In India’s Temple Of Democracy

Opposition Silenced, Journalists Barred: New Normal In India’s Temple Of Democracy
For a reporter covering the Indian parliament from the press gallery, it was always a treat to cover debates laced with wit and humour, quotable quotes, poetry, facts and figures and appreciate the oratory skills of members of the parliament. But of late, not only have the debates in the Indian parliament become monotonous, but even the important legislations are approved without debates. The kind of flavour, colours and charm of the parliamentary session that politicians and journalists would enjoy no longer takes place.

Indian parliament sits three times a year. The budget session commences in February and goes on till May with a recess of 20 days in March-April, when the committees meet to approve demands of grants of various ministries, the monsoon session in July-August and the winter session in November-December.

In the current winter session that began on November 29, the country was looking forward to a highly charged, intellectual debate on the three farm laws that the government was going to repeal. Many MPs Friday Times spoke to said they had been preparing for the debate assiduously over the past one week. Farmers sitting at the gates of Delhi, over the past year were waiting to hear different political parties.

Even at the time of adoption of this controversial legislation in 2020, it was passed without any debate. Passing bills without due deliberation has become the new norm in the Indian parliament.

In the previous monsoon session that lasted 19 days, 15 new bills were introduced and 20 bills were passed. On average, it took about 34 minutes to pass a bill. And numerically it would make the functioning of the parliament look very effective.

The lower house that is Lok Sabha where 37 political parties are represented passed 20 bills. If on average a bill got passed in 34 minutes, it means that parties representing the people of this country did not even get one minute to speak on the bill.

Unprecedented times

Those who have covered parliament over the past three decades say these are unprecedented times. Many say that Indian media had gotten used to covering the parliament since 1989 that spearheaded coalition governments. 2014 was the first time a political party got an absolute majority. So the functioning of parliament during coalition governments and those with absolute numbers differs.

“Even during the Congress-led collation times, some bills were passed without discussion, but it was done by a common consensus. But now it has become a norm,” explained veteran journalist Arvind Kumar, who has covered parliamentary proceedings for more than two decades.

Emphasising the importance of discussion to keep the spirit of democracy alive, India’s first Vice President Dr S Radhakrishana had said: “Parliament without debates is meaningless.” But under Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government, along with the history, the words of wisdom have been boxed away.

As a practice, a bill after being introduced to the house is scheduled for discussion a day or two later. The idea is to give members a chance to read through the bill so that they can then give their inputs and participate in the discussion. But the new practice is that a bill is passed the same day, within a few minutes after it is tabled.

According to PRS Legislative Research -- an independent, not-for-profit group -- in the current Lok Sabha, 70 per cent of the bills are passed on the day they are introduced. “This clearly shows that the government does not want discussion at all. Even if the ruling party has agreed to some discussion in the BAC meeting, they find ways to stall it,” added Kumar.

During the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), 71 per cent of bills were referred to the committees of the parliament seeking inputs from political parties, stakeholders and civil society. But in the current regime, this percentage has come down to 12.

Media barred

Not only has the opposition parties been sidelined, but even the journalists have been clipped. Media persons who had access to the press galleries and Central Hall -- where members from all parties would meet each other and interact with journalists are now out of reach. And since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the press galleries have been closed for journalists. Only news agencies and government media is allowed to sit through and cover proceedings.

Ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, it was unhappy about journalists’ presence in the Central Hall. “The leaders of the ruling and the opposition parties after a heated debate inside the House, would sit with media persons over a cup of tea in the Central Hall and brief them. The place was a mine for stories for journalists,” recalls a veteran journalist on the condition of anonymity, who has been covering parliamentary proceedings for more than four decades.

“But now even members of the BJP do not come to Central Hall for they know that any friendly interaction with members of opposition parties and journalists will not be liked by their party leadership,” he added.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the government had stopped issuing fresh passes to journalists to access Central Hall. And for the past year and a half, even those with access have been denied entry.

And while everyone including the staff of ministers, security personnel has access to the parliament, it is just the journalists who have been shunted out.

Calling it a Gujarat Model, another senior journalist, who also did not want to be quoted said: “Before becoming the prime minister, when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, he had denied access to journalists to cover the assembly proceedings. Now the same rule is being applied here.”

What has miffed the journalist fraternity even further is the government’s latest stand on issuing press accreditation cards. The Press Accreditation Bureau (PIB) of the government of India issues accreditation cards to journalists. This card allows the journalists to access government buildings and offices. These cards are issued after security verification and clearance from the accreditation committee and are reissued every year in January.

The forms for applying for fresh accreditation are filled every year in November. But this year the forms have not been made available, which means that the accredited journalists will have no access to government offices from January 1. Indian journalists feel that this is yet another attempt to stop journalists from getting stories and information. The journalists fear that those who do not tow the government’s line and are critical of its working might not get their cards renewed. But the government is calling it a routine exercise to beef up security.

“Keeping in mind the security of the government institutions and buildings not just in Delhi but across the country, we are just going through the list. It is a routine exercise,” said an official from the PIB.

The writer is a journalist based in India.