Demonetisation and the Crisis of Parliamentary Oversight

Limits on the number of parliamentary sittings has allowed the executive to avoid demonetisation-related queries, undermining the legislature's power.

A view of the Indian parliament building in New Delhi. Credit: Reuters/B Mathur/Files

A view of the Indian parliament building in New Delhi. Credit: Reuters

The government’s demonetisation drive has sparked a row with the opposition, which has spilled over into the ongoing winter session of parliament. As the recent debate-free passage of the Taxation Laws (Second Amendment) Bill indicates that the government is deploying every possible means to quell the rising din of critical voices. At the same time, the opposition’s desire to probe the government’s actions and question its proposals is very much in line with our most cherished political values. During the Constituent Assembly debates, principal drafter B.R. Ambedkar extolled the virtues of the legislative scrutiny of the executive, stating that “the daily assessment of responsibility…is…effective…and far more necessary in a country like India”. He wanted India to break free of the colonial legacy of impotent legislatures cowering before an all-powerful executive. So he decided to make the executive answerable to the legislature by adopting the parliamentary system of government.

Demonetisation and the conflict between the executive and legislature

The current demonetisation controversy shows that parliament needs more time to fulfill Ambedkar’s vision and hold the government accountable. Even three weeks after its introduction, confusion over demonetisation remains unabated. Indeed, the arbitrariness of the government’s move, evident in the lack of consultation in this decision, has led some to equate Modi’s announcement with a firman. What’s worse is that since this decision came into effect, various organs of the executive have issued a series of conflicting and contradictory diktats. There is even uncertainty about the constitutional validity of the government’s actions.

If the parliament is to hold the government accountable for its actions, it will have to go into these matters in some detail. This will take time. However, the government will not want to give parliament the time to sort through these matters, lest its fallacies get exposed.

Constituent Assembly debates

The Constituent Assembly debates anticipated this clash between the executive and the legislature. A solution was offered – increase the number of parliamentary sittings without relying on executive discretion to do so. That way, the parliament would have the time to fulfil its core task of making the executive answerable.

In the course of proposing an amendment to increase the number of parliament sittings, Professor K.T. Shah made three points: colonial parliaments were not expected to hold the executive answerable, independent India’s parliament was expected to hold the executive answerable and that to fulfill this changed role, more parliamentary sittings would be needed and the executive could not be relied on to deliver on this point.

Shah spoke out against the prevailing colonial practice of summoning the legislature for relatively brief ‘seasonal’ sessions with a minimal number of sittings. Such a callous attitude towards the legislature, he argued, fit the mould of British rule, where the system of government was undemocratic and the legislature a mere rubber-stamping appendage of the executive.

However, he averred, India’s transition from British tyranny to independent democracy mandated a deeper respect for the parliament, which would be demonstrably reflected by increasing the number of its sittings. Shah urged Ambedkar to consider the various potential circumstances that would result in an increased workload for the parliament. Given that the parliament would now inherit the mantle of holding the executive accountable, an antiquated system, ill-designed to check the excesses of government administration, would not work.

Shah argued that the executive should not have any say over parliamentary sittings. Vesting so much power in the executive smacked of colonial era disregard for the hallowed place of the parliament in the governmental set-up. He was so incensed by the constitution drafters’ decision to grant this power to the executive that he dismissed the possibility of the latter calling for more parliament sittings as a mere fig leaf that obscured the colonial mindset of the constitution’s drafters.

Executive misbehaviour over demonetisation 

Agreeing with Shah in spirit, Ambedkar nonetheless wanted to vest the executive with the power to determine the number of sittings. This has proven to be an error, as the ongoing activities in parliament prove.

Instead of increasing the number of sittings to get to the bottom of the demonetisation crisis, the executive is doing all it can to avoid debating altogether. Firstly, the Congress’s request for a debate was turned down by Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan, as she succumbed to partisan compulsions. She should have embraced her institutional identity as a non-partisan figure and allowed the discussion to proceed. To make matters worse, the prime minister has shown scant respect for the parliament. He has barely attended this session’s sittings and is unwilling to engage in a dialogue about demonetisation with the opposition.

Had Shah prevailed over Ambedkar, the present imbroglio would have likely been avoided. Modi and his government would have found it difficult to continue ducking legislative scrutiny if they had to attend a greater number of sittings. Thus, Ambedkar’s stated goal of bringing about a parliamentary system with legislative control over executive action would have been greatly enabled.

Disruption of parliament: no solution to government unaccountability

Members of parliament (MPs) must realise that disrupting the parliament’s functioning, as the government has been doing, actually benefits the executive by saving it from facing genuine pressure or scrutiny. This is because ministers now get a much-desired excuse to deflect questions from MPs. If there was more time to function, there would be no reason to stall legislative proceedings. The government’s shortcomings should be picked apart and put on display for all to see.

While the loss of life stemming from the hardship caused by demonetisation is tragic and condemnable, the best way for parliament to honour the departed is to put the government on the spot. The raison d’être of the legislative branch in any parliamentary democracy is to discuss and debate the merits of government policy. That is why Shah wanted more sittings so that the cut and thrust of parliamentary parley would bring government failures to light. This purpose cannot be realised if the sittings are consumed by disruptions. As Asaduddin Owaisi, a Sansad Ratna awardee and MP, has stressed, the disruption of parliamentary proceedings is a “cardinal sin” that enables the executive to escape judgment.

Both the executive and legislative branches need to be reformed if the core parliamentary ideal of legislative control over the executive is to be properly realised. It is incumbent upon the executive to discard bygone colonial notions about the irrelevancy of a greater number of parliamentary sittings. Similarly, legislators must shed their affinity for using disruptive tactics for challenging government policies.

Sachin Dhawan is an assistant professor and assistant director, Centre for Law and Humanities, at Jindal Global Law School. 

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