Union Home Minister Amit Shah recently described Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the most democratic leader in India. However, the style of law-making of his government over just the last two years can hardly be characterized as democratic, writesVINEET BHALLA.
UNION Home Minister Amit Shah, in a recent interview, called Prime Minister Narendra Modi “the most democratic leader India has ever seen”, claiming that Modi “never imposes his will while taking important decisions related to governance and policy”. He also floridly stated that he has “never seen a good listener as … Modi”.
While those are disputable opinions, to say the least, what is indisputably true is that the way in which laws have been passed through in the Parliament by the union government, that Modi leads (and whose “final decision rests with him”, as per Shah in the same interview), has been far from democratic.
Here is a look back at some such laws, passed only in the last two years, after the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government came back to power with an even larger majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Both these laws were tabled and passed without any prior consultation or discussion with either MPs, politicians, civil society groups or citizens from the erstwhile state, nor with even opposition party members from the rest of the country.
Immediately preceding these developments, the government had moved thousands of paramilitary troops into Jammu and Kashmir, and directed students and tourists to immediately leave the then state. When then state Governor Satyapal Malik was quizzed by journalists and Kashmiri politicians about why these steps were being taken and if they would lead to Articles 35A and 370 of the Constitution being abrogated or the state being trifurcated, Malik denied these as rumours.
Immediately thereafter, a total communication blackout and curfew was imposed throughout the erstwhile state, along with the preventive arrest or detention of about 4000 persons in the region. These went on for a few months to more than a year in different parts of the two union territories, with high-speed internet being denied in most districts of the Kashmir valley even during the COVID-induced national lockdown of 2020.
Regardless of the merits or demerits of the change in legal status of the erstwhile state, a complete lack of consultation, blatant misrepresentation by the highest Constitutional office holder and repression of civil liberties are more in line with someone who ‘imposes his will while taking important decisions’, rather than ‘the most democratic leader India has ever seen’.
Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019
The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act was also passed in the Lok Sabha in August 2019, and by the Rajya Sabha in November 2019. Before this, the NDA government had tabled two earlier versions of the Bill in 2016 and 2018, but had failed to get them passed each time.
The 2016 Transgender Persons Bill was drafted after receiving recommendations from the transgender community, but was still denounced by many of its members for being regressive and inferior to a 2014 private member’s bill that had been passed by the Rajya Sabha, but defeated in the Lok Sabha because of the government’s numerical majority there.
The 2016 Bill was subsequently referred to a Parliamentary standing committee, and an amended version of the bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha in 2018. Yet again, it was subject to heavy criticism and protests for not following the standing committee’s recommendations and the transgender community’s demands.
However, the same version of the Bill went on to be introduced and passed in the Parliament in 2019. Understandably, it has been widely panned by members of the transgender community, as well as the larger civil society, for, among other reasons, not giving legislative recognition to the entire mandate of the Supreme Court’s landmark NALSA judgment of 2014, for defining transgender persons differently from how the term is understood internationally, for providing a more lenient punishment for the offence of sexual attacks on trans persons in relation to cisgender persons, and giving a government committee the authority to validate a trans person’s gender or sexuality.
If PM Modi is as good a listener as Shah vouches, then why couldn’t he listen to the trans community over five years to enact a law that they would not have a problem with?
The union government had tried to push the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill through the Parliament first in January 2019. Then, it had managed to get it passed in the Lok Sabha. However, it got stuck in the Rajya Sabha, even as massive protests erupted through much of north-east India against the Bill. Eventually, it lapsed.
Later in December 2019, the government got the same bill passed within two days in the Lok Sabha, and in one day in the Rajya Sabha. Since then, 19 state governments have expressed their opposition to the Act.
This time, there were bigger and even more sustained protests throughout the country, which went on till the national lockdown was imposed in March 2020. Some of the protestors were subjected to police violence, leading to several injuries and even over 50 deaths among protestors. There came about a disturbing polarization in some sections of society on the basis of hatred for the so-called ‘anti-national’ protestors, fomented by several ruling party members and ministers, which culminated in the Delhi pogrom of February 2020.
Throughout the almost-four month long anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests, PM Modi did not attempt to engage with any of the protestors even once.
Would not a democratic leader have foreseen the consequences of such a contentious legislation, and attempted to create a dialogue with those opposed to it after, if not before, its passage? What was the tearing hurry to push it through the Parliament within three days, when the government is yet to frame the rules for the operationalization of the Act, and will not do so before January next year?
During the onslaught of the devastating second wave of COVID earlier this year that exposed our hollow governance systems and brought our healthcare infrastructure to its knees, PM Modi had conveyed to his officials to explore ways to involve civil society and NGOs to help the health sector.
However, non-profit organizations have been restricted in their ability to participate in COVID relief work due to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Act that was passed within four days in the Parliament in September last year during the peak of the first COVID wave across the country. The Act, according to development management practitioner Suvojit Chattopadhyay, “increase[s] the cost of doing business for India’s non-profits, while making them further vulnerable to harassment.”
Maybe a democratic leader would have held consultations with civil society and NGO representatives before his government passed a law that adversely affected them, before appealing to them for help in need?
In September 2020, the Parliament passed three separate legislation – the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance, Farm Services Act, 2020, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020. These three Acts replaced the three ordinances that the union government had promulgated in June 2020.
Two of these were steamrolled through the Rajya Sabha, amidst demands by opposition party members to refer the bills to a Standing Committee, via a controversial voice vote when a division vote was being sought and would have been more appropriate. It effectively silenced opposition voices within Parliament.
Since then, for the last 13 months, thousands of farmers have been protesting around Delhi and in other parts of the country, demanding that the laws be withdrawn. Over the course of these 13 months, almost 600 farmers passed away during the protests, as per unofficial figures as of July. (There are no official figures present, because the union government has not bothered to kept track)
The protests have, again, led to a lot of social polarization, as well as the protestors being subjected to all sorts of invectives. This has occasionally burst out into violent incidents, as seen most recently at Lakhimpur Khiri in Uttar Pradesh.
The union government tried to belatedly hold negotiations with the protesting farmers’ representatives in December 2020 and January 2021, but has not held any official talks with them since then. The Supreme Court, which in January put an interim stay on the laws and formed a committee to look into the farmers’ grievances, lambasted the government for “ma[king] a law without enough consultation, resulting in a strike. Many States are up in rebellion against you [that is, the union government]… The whole thing has been going on for months… You say you are negotiating, talking… What negotiating? What talking? What is going on?”
The government’s response to a Right to Information Act application has, indeed, shown that it does not hold any record pertaining to details of consultations with farmer groups on the three laws.
Regardless of the merits or demerits of the laws, that the government is essentially turning a blind eye to the protesting farmers’ concerns is not only bad for democracy; it reduces the quality of policies and also makes them harder to implement, as per former Planning Commission member Arun Maira.
The General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Amendment Act, 2021 was the final bill passed in the most recently concluded Parliament session. Its passage in the Rajya Sabha was amidst unprecedented scenes, as the opposition staged a walkout after its demand for sending the bill to a Select Committee was refused, and physical jostling occurred between some opposition MPs and security personnel who were summoned into the Parliament and were present as the Bill was passed. Veteran Paliamentarian Sharad Pawar later called it “an attack on democracy”.
The Act, which enables greater private sector participation in public sector insurance companies, has been called ‘anti-people’ by an opposition MP for nurturing capitalists’ interests. Public sector insurance company employees had protested against the amendment by going on a strike on August 4.
Yet, the Bill was discussed for a combined total of a dismal 22 minutes in both Houses, and passed with voice votes. In fact, during the entire session, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha discussed bills for an average of only 34 minutes and 46 minutes respectively before passing them, with just one bill meriting discussion of over an hour in both Houses. The government also didn’t accede to the opposition’s demand for a discussion on the Pegasus Project revelations throughout the session.
All this unrest, disorder, and resistance over laws we have witnessed the last two years would have been avoidable if we actually had a democratic leader at the helm who was a good listener, and didn’t impose his will while taking important policy and governance decisions.
(Vineet Bhalla is a Delhi-based lawyer, and Assistant Editor at The Leaflet. The views expressed are personal.)