Crisis of Accountability and Transparency Under the NDA
With the country undergoing an accountability crisis and the NDA government systemically undoing constitutional norms and structures, it has become even more pertinent to demand answers from the government.
July 2, 2020
The Logical Indian
At the time of the framing of the Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, while stating his preference for a parliamentary form of government, had argued that an Executive answerable to the House of People would be a more responsible form of government since the “assessment of responsibility of the Executive would be both daily and periodic”. This assessment, according to him, would be done in the Parliament by members of Parliament, through “questions, Resolutions, No-confidence motions, Adjournment motions and Debates on Addresses.” In this model, he stressed on a responsible executive as a pre-requisite for parliamentary democracy. This was to be ensured through the principle of collective responsibility, which was adopted as a hallmark of Indian democracy. In tandem with this principle, Article, 75(3) was enshrined in the Indian Constitution which states that there shall be a Council of Ministers which shall be collectively responsible to the House of the People, making the executive headed by the Prime Minister accountable to the Parliament.
Today, as India finds itself embroiled in a multi-fold crisis, it is this critical aspect of our democracy that appears to be have been sidelined. On the one hand, it is battling its unprecedented public health emergency since independence. The lockdown in the wake of the pandemic has triggered not just a complete shutdown of all economic activity but also record high unemployment rate and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the form of the migrant exodus. On the other hand, it is besieged by an increasingly aggressive China at the LAC in Ladakh. At a time when the country is grappling economically, militarily and diplomatically, the government has failed to convene a single session of the Parliament since 23rd March, which has enabled it to shrug off practically all accountability.
World over, in many countries, arrangements have been made for MPs to convene online and hold sessions as well as Committee meetings. That has not been explored in India so far, though discussions on this have been going on for some time now. Several countries including UK, Australia, France and Italy have adopted a hybrid model of in-person and online sessions of the Parliament, proving that democratic institutions can continue to function through this crisis. In India too, Article 85 (1) of the Constitution empowers the President to summon Parliament “to meet at such time and place as he thinks fit”. However, the Government, despite repeated demands from the Opposition, has been reluctant to even discuss the possibility of convening an urgent hearing, notwithstanding the multiple crises the country faces. There have been two direct fallouts of this-
1) The Parliament (and hence Opposition MPs) has been completely bypassed.
2) The PMO has emerged as the focal point of all decision making.
The first fallout is out there for all to see, and barely needs to be reiterated. Through its majoritarian politics, the government has defied one of the most important tenets of democracy- accountability. Since the imposition of the lockdown, it appears that the government has almost usurped the powers of the Parliament. This has been done in several ways. Eleven ordinances have been passed in the past two months under the pretext of dealing with urgent issues while the Parliament is out of session. While delegated legislation is an accepted form of law making, it is as a norm restricted to matters that require immediate intervention of the law. It is therefore surprising that ordinances like FPTC and FAPAFS, introduced as a part of agricultural reforms in the COVID relief package, which ironically “do not even pretend to address the demands or the acute needs of the farmers during this period of distress”, as Yogendra Yadav had argued, was deemed urgent enough to pass without any discussion or deliberation in the Parliament. This can only mean that it was done insidiously with the intent of bypassing the Parliament. Opaque decision making and evading questions on critical issues of national importance like the state of public health infrastructure, government’s strategies to contain the pandemic, the extent of the migrant exodus and initiatives taken to deal with it, utilisation of funds under PM CARES and more recently, details of the Ladakh border stand-off with China have not only contributed to a crisis of transparency and accountability but also compromised our national security.
The second fallout, observed through the past six years of the NDA government, has been less overt, but has equally significant or more serious implications. Camouflaged in their 2014 slogan of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, the aim of the BJP has been to subvert accountability and almost entirely restrict decision making to PM Modi and Amit Shah. The duo appears to have disregarded all previously established precedents and have effected major changes in both the style of functioning as well as in the decision-making processes of the government. Earlier, where all major policy decisions of the government were subjected to broad-based consultation among top leaders and the cabinet, it has now been reduced to a PMO driven deliberation. Decision-making is now centralised, with all the important decisions being made at the level of the PMO, which are then conveyed to the cabinet, thus essentially reducing them to subordinates instead of equal stakeholders in the process. Abolishment of EGoMs, merging of ministries as well as government statements stating that ‘the Cabinet Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office will facilitate the decision making process’ are all indications of the growing role of PMO and the shrinking space for dialogue in the Parliament or even within the cabinet.
With the country undergoing an accountability crisis and the NDA government systemically undoing constitutional norms and structures, it has become even more pertinent to demand answers from the government. The very essence of a parliamentary democracy, as Dr Ambedkar had pointed out, lay in an accountable executive, and in attempting to deflect or evade questions, it is the very structure of our democracy that is at threat.
Aadrita Das is lawyer and researcher at Samruddha Bharat Foundation.