For India's members of Parliament, a special (surprise!) session awaits

What is the special session of Parliament going to unveil? It's possibly a question not worth asking, because it's likely there is in fact hardly anyone in the know — not even the Cabinet ministers

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi needn't take it amiss if her suggested agenda for the special session of Parliament is not heeded. It is doubtful if even the Cabinet has a clue or a say in it (photo: Namas Bhojani/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Congress leader Sonia Gandhi needn't take it amiss if her suggested agenda for the special session of Parliament is not heeded. It is doubtful if even the Cabinet has a clue or a say in it (photo: Namas Bhojani/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Aakar Patel

A report was published on Saturday, 9 September with the headline 'Joint sitting of both Houses to bid farewell to old Parliament building?’

The question mark is normal, because few know what the agenda of the special session is.

The report reads: 'Just ahead of the five-day special session, there is considerable speculation over whether a joint meeting of the two Houses will be convened on September 19 in the iconic Central Hall to say goodbye to the existing Parliament building.'

Why would one need five days to say goodbye to a building? And why is there the need for 'considerable speculation' in a democracy when laws and changes should be discussed openly and transparently?

This, the report did not enlighten readers on.

When this special session was first announced on 31 August, there began a guessing game on why it was being called so shortly after one session had just ended on 11 August.

The winter session will begin in November, so it is not as if Parliament won't meet again for ages anyway. Why again just a scant month later?

Some said it was to change the name of India to 'Bharat'.

Two days of media focus went into that. Ministers defended the move saying there was nothing wrong with it, but were unable to confirm whether or not this change in the nation’s name was what the session was for.

Another guess was that it has to do with the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill.

This was originally passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2008, but then it stalled because of lack of support and over demands for sub-categories for reservation in favour of women from who were doubly marginalised.

If the women's reservation bill is indeed on the agenda and it goes through, it will set aside one third of all seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women. This is a considerable reform and if it is indeed this law that is being taken up, one hopes it does get passed into law.

But of course one doesn’t know.

Another guess in the media was that the government, for whatever reason, was pushing to hold the Lok Sabha elections early.

The general elections are due in May next year, meaning in another eight months, but they might be pulled forward just as the Vajpayee government had done in 2004.

This theory has not found many takers, but again — who knows?

Vajpayee’s gambit to hold the polls early did not succeed and the government fell, so there will likely be caution on this front.

The most fervent speculation was around something called 'one nation, one election', a system whereby all states and the Union will go into a single election every five years, with citizens voting for state assemblies and the Lok Sabha at the same time.

Will corporation elections also be included? One doesn’t know.

What about by-elections? And how will the EVMs be set up for multiple elections? One does not know that either, but perhaps wiser minds have already sorted such things out.

A committee has been set up under a former president to look into the idea, but how this committee will meet and give its findings all in time for the special session is unclear.

One more story floated in the media was that the session was about a commission set up in 2017 to look at sub-categorisation of other backward classes (OBCs) so that reservations may be made more equitable.

The parliamentary form of government carries with it something called collective responsibility, meaning that decisions are jointly owned. But here the Cabinet is as much in the dark about decisions as the rest of us are.

Two instances from the past will suffice to demonstrate this.

The first was a report from 10 November 2016, headlined ‘Don’t bring your phones: Modi’s Cabinet meet that took everyone by surprise’. The report said that Union ministers found out about demonetisation the same day as the rest of us, meaning that it was neither discussed nor debated.

Another instance is the BBC’s filing of more than 240 Right to Information queries with the government about the national lockdown of 2020. They asked the Union government departments of health, finance, disaster management and the rest about what they knew regarding the lockdown and how they prepared. The answer was that they did not know and did not prepare.

This form of government, where secrets and major decisions are kept from the Cabinet itself, appears to be continuing — which is why the speculation around this special session.

There is to be no Question Hour either in this session. Of course, while this is expected, it is not necessary. After all, even questions asked are not answered in the Lok Sabha, so what would be the point of stopping anyone from asking questions, really?

The Opposition, meanwhile, has sent a list of things they would like to see discussed in the session. These include:

  • inflation and joblessness

  • a MSP (minimum support price) for farmers

  • the continuing violence in Manipur

  • the Adani scandal

  • communal tensions across India

  • Chinese actions in Ladakh and elsewhere

  • the need for a caste census (or any census, given that the primary one has been inexplicably delayed)

  • the strains on federalism

  • and the impact of natural disasters and climate change.

Of course, it is unlikely that — assuming, quite safely, that these are not in fact on the agenda — these topics will be taken up by the government in the special session.

When even the Cabinet itself has so little say in what should be discussed and what bills should be passed, why should the Opposition's input be taken on board at all?

Views are personal

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