The memories of the deadly riots that rocked the national capital are still fresh in the minds of India’s citizens. Even now, corpses are being lifted out of Delhi’s canals and yet, there has been no reckoning for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Over 50 people have been killed in the riots and hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslims have lost their livelihoods and homes to violence and arson.
The 19th parliamentary Budget Session is currently ongoing and opposition parties have rightly demanded that the Delhi riots and the BJP government’s alleged complicity in the matter be discussed on the floor of the house. However, with its brute majority, the BJP has thus far stonewalled the demands of the Opposition Party and refused to discuss the riots. Speaker Om Birla has said that the matter would only be discussed post Holi, citing a myriad of reasons ranging from inconvenience to threats to national security.
This seems to be the value that is attached to the lives of the Delhi riot victims.
Unfortunately, there is legal backing for the BJP’s stonewalling of the opposition. The answer for BJP’s temerity lies in the ‘Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha’. As the title suggests, these are the Rules that govern the conduct of proceedings of the Lok Sabha.
As per Rule 25, the Government (meaning the ruling party) alone has the right to set the agenda for discussion. The Speaker of the house is allowed to vary the set business of the day, if and only if he is satisfied that there is sufficient ground for such variation.
Rule 31(2) of the Rules also states clearly that no business not included in the list of business circulated by the Ruling Party shall be discussed in the House without the permission of the Speaker.
What this essentially means is that none of the provisions in the Rules allow opposition parties to set the agenda in a session. Currently, parliamentary time is controlled almost entirely by the party in power which, as a rule, does not provide sufficient time and opportunity for opposition parties to question or seek clarifications on matters of public importance.
Provisions such as question hour, replies to unstarred questions etc. are insufficient to discuss matters that need far more time and deep reflection by the parliamentarians.
Not only is the cause of justice and good conscience hamstrung by the Lok Sabha’s Rules but precious parliamentary time that could have been used to discuss important matters of governance is also lost.
A study by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy titled ‘Disruptions in the Indian Parliament‘ pointed out the fact that disruptive behaviour by members of parliament during session across legislative bodies in the country results in a massive loss of legislative productivity and time. For instance, in the 16th Lok Sabha, over 16%, i.e., 10 working day, out of a total 68 working days were lost to disruptions.
Disruptions like these lead to a loss of precious legislative time and set a dangerous trend of important bills being passed without adequate deliberation and debate.
More often than not, these disruptions occur precisely because Opposition members do not have adequate avenues to discuss emerging issues where the Ruling Parties need to be held accountable.
It is unfortunate that in the Indian parliamentary system, the rights and functions of the opposition with regards to the government have not been adequately defined. However, there is one way to address this problem and ensure that the any government with a brute strength is made answerable and accountable for its actions, inactions and decisions on the days of riots.
In order to address this disparity and simultaneously reduce the number of disruptions and the subsequent loss of legislative time, the practice of ‘Opposition days’ needs to become a part of legislative sessions. This can be achieved through an amendment to the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha.
‘Opposition days’ are essentially a parliamentary oversight mechanism whereby certain days during the session are allocated for the opposition parties to set the agenda of the house.
They have been a popular measure across countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom. “Allotted Days” in Canada, for instance, see opposition party members propose motions for debate on any matters falling within the Parliament’s jurisdiction. There are 22 “allotted days” in each calendar year and each opposition party is allocated such days based on its proportional strength in the House.
Similarly, this system of opposition days also finds a place in the United Kingdom’s Westminster system. Here, out of the 20 allotted opposition days per session, 17 days are allotted to the main opposition leader, while the rest are given to the second largest opposition party. This procedure is laid down under Standing Order 14 of the House of Commons. The topic of debate and the text of the motion as decided by the opposition parties are shared with the ruling party so that they may prepare for the proposed debate.
This is precisely what needs to be done in the Indian context as well. By adopting opposition days, opposition parties would be given the right to hold the ruling party accountable instead of having to resort to disruptions of the house. The ruling party would then have no choice but to answer the questions of the opposition parties.
However, the irony lies in the fact that the decision to amend the Rules and introduce “opposition days” will have to be taken by the ruling party itself which will essentially mean that it will facilitate an increase in its own accountability. However, history in this case provides hope. Just as the Janata Dal Government enacted the 43rd and 44th Amendments to the constitution to undo the damage done to it during the Emergency, it can only be hoped that the next government would hold the needs of the nation above party politics and amend the Rules to enable opposition days in India.
Akhileshwari Reddy is a Research Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Karnataka.