Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Wait & Watch

A short five-day Special Session called by the government has raised eyebrows among the Opposition. While the agenda has not been shared as yet, there will be no Question Hour and no private members’ business

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By Vivek K Agnihotri

On August 31, 2023, when the Opposition under the banner of the coalition named INDIA was assembling in Mumbai to plan out its future strategy, the Union government announced a Special Session of Parliament from September 18 to 22, shortly after the conclusion of the G-20 summit in Delhi on September 10. The minister for parliamentary affairs stated that the Special Session would have five sittings and amid Amrit Kaal (the quarter century leading up to 100 years of Independence), the government was looking forward to having fruitful discussions and debates.

Summoning the Parliament for a Special Session is not a singularity. It is unusual, but not unconstitutional. Article 85 of the Constitution states that the president shall, from time to time, summon each House of Parliament to meet at such time and place 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. As the Monsoon Session has just concluded, the requirement relating to not more than six months gap is not at all a concern. Moreover, the Constitution nowhere prescribes the convening of the Parliament on only three occasions during a year, namely the Budget, Monsoon and Winter Sessions.

Article 352 of the Constitution refers to a “special sitting” of the Lok Sabha in the context of a proclamation of emergency, which is not relevant here. Special Sessions in the past have been held with proper debates and discussions as well as to celebrate certain historical events.

In 1962, a Special Session was called on November 8-9 at the instance of Atal Behari Vajpayee to discuss the Indo-China war situation. A Special Session was also held on November 26-27, 2015, to pay tributes to Dr BR Ambedkar on his 125 birth anniversary. The two-day special sittings in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha were part of year-long celebrations to honour the architect of the Indian Constitution. The theme was to discuss the polity’s commitment to the Constitution. The same year, the government declared November 26 as Constitution Day to raise awareness about Dr Ambedkar’s thoughts as part of his birth anniversary celebrations. A six-day Special Session was held from August 26 to September 1, 1997, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of India’s Independence. A joint parliamentary sitting of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha was held on June 30, 2017, to mark the rollout of the GST Act with effect from July 1, 2017.

The first celebratory session was held on August 14-15, 1947, on the eve of Independence. Celebratory sessions were also held on August 9, 1992, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Quit India movement and on midnight 14-15, 1972, to celebrate the silver jubilee of India’s Independence.

The current Special Session comes closest to the six-day one held in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of India’s Independence. The present session may mark the functioning of the new Parliament building during the auspicious Ganeshotsav and in close proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birthday, in the presence of parliamentarians of G-20 countries. Thus, there will be some celebrations (new Parliament building, Chandrayan-3, G-20) and there may also be some deliberations and discussions (to the extent permitted by the Opposition).

As regards the agenda for deliberation and discussion during the Special Session, the minister for parliamentary affairs is reported to have said that it will be shared shortly. In the meanwhile, the secretariats of the two Houses have notified what not to expect: there will be no Question Hour and no private members’ business.

The announcement of the Special Session has, no doubt, put a spanner in the works of the Opposition when it met to firm up its strategy on various issues leading up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2024. Speculations are rife that the government may try to push through some momentous, yet contentious, legislations such as the passage of the Reservation for Women in Parliament bill and/or amendment to or repeal of the Places Worship Act, 1991.

But with the announcement of an eight-member panel under former President Ram Nath Kovind to explore the feasibility of “one nation, one election”, the legislative process to put it into motion has become the front-runner. However, it is easier said than done. The matter has been considered, from time to time, since 1983. In 2018, a draft report of the Law Commission had recommended three options for synchronising the elections in the country, beginning with the Lok Sabha election 2019.

Besides many pros and cons of the concept, a large number of amendments to laws, rules and regulations would need to be carried out, making the task very arduous, if not impossible. It will also be open to challenge in courts on the ground of defilement of the doctrine of basic structure. Amendments to the Constitution would encompass Articles 83 (Duration of Houses), 85 (Dissolution of the Lok Sabha), 172 (Duration of State Legislatures), 174 (Dissolution of State Legislatures), 356 (Failure of Constitutional Machinery) and the Tenth Schedule (to ensure that all disqualification issues arising from defection are decided by the presiding officer within six months). Ratification of the amendments by not less than one-half of the state legislatures may also be required to be taken as a matter of abundant precaution.

Amendments to laws would require changes in The Representation of the People Act, 1951, such as Section 2 (adding a definition of “simultaneous elections”), and Sections 14 and 15 (notification of general and state assembly elections). The Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business of the Lok Sabha and the legislative assemblies would need to be amended to replace “Motion of No-Confidence” with “Motion of Constructive Vote of No-Confidence”.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle would be creation of a political consensus for simultaneous elections requiring some state governments to agree to curtailing the terms of their legislative assemblies and foregoing their regional identities.

What is in the realm of possibility though is announcing the next parliamentary elections to coincide with the forthcoming assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Telangana et al. The government may also attempt to cajole some of the states where elections are due in 2024, namely Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Odisha and Sikkim to join in. This may mark a small step to move towards the grand vision of “one nation, one election”.

Internationally, countries which have a one nation, one election system include Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Indonesia, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the UK among others.

What exactly is going to happen during the short five-day Special Session amid Amrit Kaal, only the time will tell. 

—The writer is former Secretary-General, Rajya Sabha

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