Mass suspensions of Opposition MPs raise concerns about India’s parliamentary future

With 143 MPs suspended in Parliament’s stormiest week, Opposition cries “tyranny” while BJP claims “order”. Are there any solutions to the impasse?

Published : Dec 20, 2023 15:35 IST - 8 MINS READ

Opposition MPs including Sonia Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge, and Rahul Gandhi protest in front of the Gandhi statue against the suspension of 141 Opposition MPs for the Winter Session of Parliament in New Delhi on December 20

Opposition MPs including Sonia Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge, and Rahul Gandhi protest in front of the Gandhi statue against the suspension of 141 Opposition MPs for the Winter Session of Parliament in New Delhi on December 20 | Photo Credit: ANI

The serial suspension of Opposition members from the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, totalling 143—a record number—until December 20 after protests in both houses over the December 13 Parliament security breach has kicked up a political storm, inviting reactions ranging from “Namocracy in all its tyranny” to “writing obituaries for parliamentary democracy”. Congress MP Karti Chidambaram called it a “mass mechanical suspension” and termed the government’s action “indiscriminate”.

Meanwhile, the government chose to push through key legislations with empty Opposition benches, a move condemned by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, who said that an autocratic BJP wants to demolish democracy in the country.

“We all know that key Bills like the Criminal Law Amendments, which unleash draconian powers and impede citizen’s Rights, are listed. Modi government does not want the people of India to hear out the Opposition, while these Bills are debated and deliberated,” Kharge said. “Therefore, they have adopted this ‘Suspend, Throw Out and Bulldoze’ tactic to destroy Democracy. Our simple demands about the Union Home Minister making a statement in Parliament on the grave security breach and a detailed discussion on the same remain unaltered.”

According to political analyst Rasheed Kidwai, the “suspension spree is a carefully thought-out action” by the Modi government aimed at dubbing the combined Opposition as “unreasonable, disruptive, anti-growth and tad anti-national”. He told Frontline: “Just as in Putin’s Russia, an attempt seems to be made to portray the Opposition as incapable of governance.”

Kidwai added that the Indian middle class is a target audience for this campaign. He said that the role of the presiding officers of the two Houses has also been questionable. Normally, the Speaker and Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha try to act as buffers, but in this case, all guards and cautions have been thrown out of the wind. Kidwai said: “It is a build-up for the 2024 Lok Sabha.”

The issue figured in the discussion by the leaders of the 28 parties that form the INDIA bloc at its crucial meeting on December 19 in New Delhi, convened to discuss seat-sharing strategies for the 2024 general election. The meeting, attended by top Opposition leaders, condemned the suspensions and decided to hold a nationwide protest on December 22.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said the government wants an “Opposition mukt” Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. “Everybody who was present has been suspended for the rest of the session, which means they want to pass their Bills without any discussion. It is a betrayal of parliamentary democracy,” Tharoor said.

Smoke and fire

It all started on December 14, when 13 Opposition members from the Lok Sabha and one from the Rajya Sabha were suspended when they protested in the well of the House, asking the government for a statement on the smoke-canister attack in the Lok Sabha the day before. Subsequently, on December 18, a record 78 MPs (33 from the Lok Sabha and 45 from the Rajya Sabha) were suspended, all from Opposition parties. They too had demanded a statement from Union Home Minister Amit Shah regarding the breach. On December 19, an additional 49 Lok Sabha MPs were suspended.

The total count of 143 suspended MPs seems to be the largest in India’s history. The previous record was on March 15, 1989, when 63 Lok Sabha members from Opposition parties were suspended after a dispute regarding the tabling of the report of the Justice Thakkar Commission on the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. But even then, they were suspended only for the remaining three days of that specific week, while this time members have been suspended for the entire session.

Also Read | What the smoke bombs exposed

According to former Lok Sabha Secretary General P.D.T. Achary, the problem is not really the number of MPs who have been suspended. “The question is whether the suspension should be done in the present situation when the MPs demanded a statement from the Minister on the event that happened in Parliament”. That is the main issue, he told Frontline. “That issue remains unaddressed so far.”

While acknowledging that holding up placards in the House is not allowed by the rules as it undermines the dignity of the House, Achary said, “But there should be some understanding between the government and the Opposition to discourage such practices. Only that way you can enforce rules. You can’t keep suspending members.”

Placard used by opposition MPs during a protest over their suspension amid the Winter session of Parliament in New Delhi.

Placard used by opposition MPs during a protest over their suspension amid the Winter session of Parliament in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: PTI

According to the rules, the suspension of a member occurs under two circumstances: when a member disregards the authority of the Chair or when a member wilfully and persistently obstructs the proceedings of the House. A very serious and aggravated form of obstruction of the proceedings or defiance of the Chair merits suspension, said Achary. “Suspension is a very serious thing. You are depriving the House of the mandate. The House is supposed to get services from all the members of the House. After all, Parliament means what? Parliament means the Members of Parliament. Their continuous services should be available to the House. Therefore, a suspension must take place only in very, very extreme cases,” he added.

That said, both Houses have witnessed repeated suspensions of members of the Opposition in the last 15 years, and it has increased in recent years.

A history of suspensions

On September 22, 2020, eight Rajya Sabha MPs from Opposition parties were suspended for their noisy protest against two contentious Farm Bills passed in the Rajya Sabha. Months earlier, in March 2020, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla had suspended seven Congress MPs for the remainder of the Budget session after they created a disturbance while protesting the communal violence in Delhi and demanding the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah.

In July 2017, six Congress MPs were suspended for five days when they threw papers at the Chair in protest when their demand for an adjournment motion to discuss incidents of lynching was disallowed.

In September 2015, then Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan suspended 25 Congress members of Lok Sabha for displaying placards in the House, accusing them of “persistently and wilfully” obstructing proceedings. In 2010, during the Congress-led UPA government, seven MPs from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United), Lok Janshakti Party, and Samajwadi Party were suspended while opposing the Women’s Reservation Bill.

In March 1989, when the 63 Opposition MPs were suspended over the tabling of the report of the Justice Thakkar Commission, the Congress was in power.

How can we fix this?

In July 2019, the Rule Review Committee chaired by the then Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu suggested the automatic suspension of members who create a ruckus in the House.

A July 2016 report on “Disruptions in the Indian Parliament” by New Delhi-based think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy recommended several measures, including the introduction of a Parliamentary Disruptions Index (PDI) and a Productivity Meter, aligning with norms prevalent in the UK Parliament. The idea of a PDI received support at a conference of Presiding Officers of Legislative bodies in November 2019, held in Dehradun. The conference discussed the possibility of having a “code of conduct” for members of the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha, State Assemblies, and Councils to minimise disruptions in the House, particularly related to entering and protesting in the well of the House.

The Vidhi report pointed out that parliamentary rules limit interventions and leadership opportunities for Opposition members. To address this, the report suggested aligning parliamentary proceedings with the UK and US models, in which Opposition parties lead discussions occasionally. Specifically, it proposed dedicating one day per week, preferably Mondays, for discussions led by Opposition members in order to reduce disruptions through the week.

In the Indian Parliament, Question Hour and Zero Hour allow MPs to question and express opinions against the ruling government. However, these forums often lead to disruptions instead of fostering debate, according to the Vidhi report. Notably, the absence of the Prime Minister during these sessions exacerbates chaos, as there is no substitute for the Prime Minister. In contrast, the UK requires the Prime Minister to respond to MPs’ questions weekly, leading to fewer disruptions and more spirited debates.

The report recommended adopting the UK practice of posing questions to the Prime Minister within the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha rules. It suggested allowing weekly sessions for questioning the Prime Minister, promoting regular engagement.

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To curb disruptions, the report proposed using the PDI for a “naming and shaming” approach. It suggested sharing the names of MPs with the highest PDI values weekly in the media. The widespread dissemination of such information could negatively impact MPs’ public image, potentially restraining them from further disruptions.

However, the Vidhi report acknowledged that eliminating disruptions in Parliament requires widespread acceptance across party lines and among citizens. Without this, Parliament risks becoming ineffective and unrepresentative.

In September 2012, Sushma Swaraj, a member of the BJP and the then Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, said: “Not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy.” The BJP leader Arun Jaitley, the then Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said, “There are occasions when an obstruction in Parliament brings greater benefits to the country.” So long as political parties sing different tunes depending on which side of the aisle they sit in, there is unlikely to be a lasting solution that brings about decorum in Parliament and also ensures its full-fledged and free functioning.

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