A year-long session of Parliament?

The British Parliament, which India has modeled its parliamentary democracy on is in session throughout the year

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Ajay K Mehra

The delay in convening the winter session 2017 due to Gujarat Legislative Assembly election is a rare, though not a singular aberration. The winter session of the parliament was delayed in 2003 with Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in power, and also in 2008 and 2013 with Dr Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the saddle.

While in 2003 and 2013 elections in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh were the pretexts, in 2008 the cancellation was purportedly because the Prime Minister was on an official trip abroad. However, in 2008, the monsoon session was extended till November-December, which ensured that the winter session would not be held.

Even though none of the reasons, like in the current case, were compelling, no major hue and cry was raised as raised this time by the opposition parties. When it appeared that the session might be scrapped, the opposition alleged that the delay in holding the session, or the possibility of scrapping it altogether, by the ruling party was because it feared that serious issues of mal-governance raised by them may cloud the judgement of the Gujarat voters.

‘The prime minister is running away from Parliament and debates…. What is happening is an assault on democracy.’ Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien tweeted on October 30: ‘Can we expect dates of the winter session to be announced today? Anyone listening?’

An equally strong defence of the move came from the Union government; with a senior member quoted as saying: ‘A large section of parliamentarians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ministers in Union government and many senior Congress leaders, will be busy in the election campaign, which could adversely impact the winter session. Most of the 37 MPs, 26 from the Lok Sabha and 11 from the Rajya Sabha, will also be involved in campaigning; it makes sense to delay the session.’

The Indian Parliament normally meets for three sessions in a year – (i) Budget Session (February-May); (ii) Monsoon Session (July-August); and (iii) Winter Session (November-December). The Constitution, however, does not specify the number of times the Parliament should meet each year. Article 85 of the Constitution says: ‘The President shall from time to time summon each House of Parliament to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit, but six months shall not intervene between its last sitting in one session and the date appointed for its first sitting in the next session.’. This means that even if the Parliament meets only twice a year, it would be Constitutionally a valid practice.

However, except for the exceptions mentioned above, three sessions of Parliament have been held regularly since its constitution in 1952, though there have been innovations and adaptations in holding the session as well. For example, to ensure that the Demands for Grants of various Ministries could be discussed by the Departmentally-related Standing Committees constituted in 1993, Lok Sabha split its budget session in 1994 into two periods – from 21 February 1994 to 19 March 1994 and 18 April 1994 to 13 May 1994.

The Committees utilised the intervening period of about a month for consideration of the Demands for Grants. In 2016, the monsoon session became the third session of the year, as the Budget Session was converted into two separate sessions to enable the issuance of an Ordinance.

Even though there are no standard practice worldwide on the number of times a Parliament should meet, some other parliaments actually do meet for the entire year. The British Parliament, which India has modeled its parliamentary democracy on, is in session throughout the year. Its session begins in the spring with the state opening of Parliament, and it meets for 12 months, with breaks for festivals and other breaks. Canada follows a similar practice.

Normally a month long, the session has been shortened by a week this time since the ruling party wanted to mobilise the entire resource of the senior leadership to campaign for the Gujarat assembly election.

As this aberration is being taken note of and being raised as a political controversy, it only adds another one to a huge basket of issues affecting the Indian parliament that have been raised by studies, experts and commentators. Indeed, it underlines the fact that Parliament in India is not the same that invited praise from political scientists such as W.H. Morris-Jones and others and past three decades have witnessed its slide downhill. To retrieve it from such politicking, it is necessary that parliamentary rules are amended to include the minimum number of sessions and sittings in each session.

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