'What Happened to Bills in Tentative Agenda?': Questions Over Secrecy of Parl Special Session

The lone legislative business that was conducted during the special session was not part of the tentative agenda of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha released on September 13. 

New Delhi: The special session of parliament which concluded a day early on September 21, saw the introduction and passage of one piece of legislation  – the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Amendment) Bill, 2023, which seeks to provide 33% reservation to women in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies.

This lone legislative business that was conducted during the special session was not part of the tentative agenda of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha released on September 13. 

It was only listed moments before prime minister Narendra Modi started speaking in the Lok Sabha – at the new parliament building – on September 19, announcing the decision to introduce the legislation to bring in women’s reservation.

The secrecy surrounding the agenda of the special session has raised questions about adherence to procedure on the conduct of house business.

Secrecy around agenda

This special session had been shrouded in secrecy and thus, speculation, from the time it was first announced.

On August 31, Union minister for parliamentary affairs Pralhad Joshi announced on X (formerly Twitter) that a special session will be held from September 18 to 22. He did not reveal the agenda of the session.

Two weeks later, and with only five days to go for the session to start, amid mounting criticism from the opposition around the secrecy surrounding the agenda of the special session, the Modi government published the tentative agenda of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha late on September 13.

This tentative list included

  • The Advocates (Amendment) Bill, 2023,
  • The Press and Registration of Periodicals Bill, 2023,
  • The Post Office Bill, 2023,
  • The Repealing and Amending Bill, 2022, and
  • The Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service, Term of Office) Bill, 2023.

The Rajya Sabha’s parliamentary bulletin, however, stated that the list is “not to be taken as exhaustive.”

The two bulletins also stated that the special session will also include a discussion on the “Parliamentary journey of 75 years starting from Samvidhan Sabha – Achievements, Experiences, Memories and Learnings”.

On the eve of the special session, on September 17, Joshi told reporters after the all-party meeting that eight bills have been listed for the session. He did not elaborate what the eight bills were.

“A special session of Parliament is going to start for five days from tomorrow, for which a total of 8 bills are listed.

“On the first day, the session will be held in the old Parliament House. The next day i.e. on 19th September, there will be a photo session in the old Parliament House, then there will be a function in the Central Hall at 11 am. After that we will enter the new Parliament. The Parliament session will be held in the new Parliament House on September 19 and regular parliamentary work will begin from September 20,” he said.

The Wire has learnt that opposition parties, during the all-party meeting on September 17, also raised objections to the Election Commissioners’ Bill which has drawn criticism over its implications for free and fair elections in the country and the proposed downgrading of the status of Election Commissioners.

On the evening of September 18, a meeting of the Union cabinet was held in which the women’s reservation bill was approved. However, after the meeting there was no usual cabinet briefing.

A Union minister, Prahlad Singh Patel, who had tweeted about the approval given to the Bill in the meeting, deleted his post hours later.

It was only in his speech in the Lok Sabha the next day, September 20, that Modi confirmed that the cabinet had approved the women’s reservation Bill the night before while announcing his government’s decision to bring in the legislation.

“Perhaps I have been chosen by god to do this auspicious work. Once again our government has taken a step in this direction. In yesterday’s cabinet meeting, the women’s reservation Bill was approved,” he said.

Subsequently, Union minister for law and justice Arjun Ram Meghwal tabled the Bill, and the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha passed the legislation over the course of the next two days. While only two MPs from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen opposed the bill in the Lok Sabha, it was passed unanimously in the Rajya Sabha, though no date has been set for its implementation.

Apart from the women’s reservation Bill, the special session also saw a discussion on 75 years of India’s parliamentary journey on September 18, and a discussion on the achievements of Chandrayaan 3 on September 20 in the Rajya Sabha and on September 21 in the Lok Sabha.

The special session then ended a day early on Thursday (September 21).

Apart from the women’s reservation bill, it did not take up any of the other legislative business listed in the tentative house agenda, nor was there a new list of the “eight bills” that Joshi referred to after the all-party meeting.

Farm bills, reading down of Article 370, and so on

According to the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha, the transaction of government business is organised by the secretary general on the orders of the Speaker on consultation with the Leader of the House.

“Provided that such order of business shall not be varied on the day that business is set down for disposal unless the Speaker is satisfied that there is sufficient ground for such variation,” it states.

According to P.D.T. Achary, an expert in parliamentary affairs and former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha, while the rules of parliamentary procedure allow the government to change the items of legislative business at the last minute, it cannot “become regular practice.”

“It might have happened before (that bills are listed at the last minute), but this was not as frequent as it is now,” he said to The Wire.

“Take the case of the three farm bills or the reading down of Article 370. All these bills were introduced at the last minute without the house knowing about it. No member had any notice. These rules have been framed keeping in view the interests of the members, who have to be given a copy of the bill 24 hours before so they can come prepared and raise objections to the introduction of the bill, if they wish to. 

The expert said that while there can be situations where the government wants to urgently legislate on a certain issue and changes the order of business and the Speaker can allow the government to do so using his discretionary powers.

“But this has become a practice and this shows a pattern now. It shows that many of these important bills were introduced without giving sufficient notice to the members, which is not a good practice and against the rules. Yes, the Speaker has the discretion but he has to use his judgement on the importance of the issue. This discretion is not to be used regularly. That means the rules become obsolete then.”

“When a bill is being brought in at the last minute, and that has become a practice it shows that the government has no plans about its legislative business in advance, which has to be planned and accordingly the house has to be notified. And that happens every time. You cannot depart from it whenever you like,” the parliamentary affairs expert said.

‘Secrecy hurts democracy’

Speaking to The Wire Congress MP Jairam Ramesh said that the special session agenda was a “smokescreen.”

“I had said before at a press conference as well, that the special session will be a Modi chalisaa,” said Ramesh.

“It was Chandrayaan, then people came prepared for other bills that were not taken up. It started with Modi’s western calendar birthday and ended with his Hindu calendar birthday. If they wanted the women’s reservation Bill it would have been passed in the Monsoon Session itself. It was a smokescreen,” he said.

During the debate on the women’s reservation Bill, All India Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien raised the issue of the secrecy of the house agenda while voicing his support for the legislation in the Rajya Sabha.

“When will this government learn that we are a parliamentary democracy, not an army commando top secret operation. In an army commando operation, you need secrecy, you need surprise, you need stealth. In a parliamentary democracy you don’t. You need cooperation, you need sharing. 

“Why do you need this special session, no agenda, the agenda will be added later. Why do you have an all-party meeting on Sunday and don’t mention a word about this bill? Why do you have a cabinet meeting and this morning we are given four hours to give amendments. I appeal to them, parliamentary democracy with such secrecy hurts a democracy,” he said.

Aam Aadmi Party MP Sanjay Singh who was suspended during the Monsoon Session, said that it appears that the Modi government had no preparations for the special session.

“They had no preparations. If they had to pass the women’s reservations Bill and it was not going to come into force in 2024, then why did they not get it passed in the Winter Session? They sang praises about Chandrayaan during the session. What use did they make of the special session? The women’s reservation Bill will not come in 2024 so there was no emergency for that either. The Election Commissioner’s Bill was opposed to in the all party meeting so they stepped back from that,” he said to The Wire.

Referring to his suspension for raising the ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur and the lack of action against BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri who used communal slurs against Bahujan Samaj Party MP Danish Ali, Singh said that parliamentary processes are being made into a “mockery.”

“The way in which parliamentary processes are being reduced to a joke in the coming days parliament itself will lose its meaning.  Outside the parliament, they are using central agencies like ED, CBI to threaten opposition parties and topple governments run by opposition parties. Parliament was the only platform to raise your issues but now the extension of my suspension by the parliamentary privilege committee and the lack of action against Bidhuri just shows what is happening to the parliamentary process,” he said. 

Trinamool Congress MP Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar said that while the women’s Bill was important, and a longstanding demand, the BJP government appears to have camouflaged its electoral agenda in the special session.

“This government is more interested in their electoral gains than in the country’s welfare. The hidden agenda being the election was camouflaged (in the special session). They are not interested in welfare and only in electoral gimmicks,” she said to The Wire.

“The women’s bill is a very important bill but it was our wish that it be implemented with immediate effect. It has been used to fool people,” she said, referring to the clause tied to the legislation that it will only be implemented after the census and delimitation exercises are done.

“I don’t see the utility of the special session. We just finished the monsoon session and another is coming in winter. Chandrayaan is the scientists’ accomplishment, not the government’s. This is just to propagate themselves and call a special session and spend crores of money and pick up two issues which are actually of the scientists and the opposition parties when they were in power and to shift to a new building on Ganesh Chaturthi. My religion is my own but it cannot be used to dominate other people and use it for votes..So in every way their target is elections which are coming up in five states this year.”

BJP national spokesperson Syed Zafar Islam told The Wire that there was no secrecy  behind the special session.

“The government has the discretion and the flexibility to change bills or introduce a different bill if it wants. Everybody was informed on the eve of the special session and enough time was given to everyone to prepare. See the outcome, everyone supported the Bill. If they had not read it they wouldn’t have supported it. They have vehemently opposed other bills. But this bill everyone supported,” he said.