Over the past two days, a total of 127 Opposition MPs have been suspended from both houses. That’s a record even by our tradition of bitter party rivalry. The sheer noise makes it easy to overlook the deeper problem: The Indian Parliament has stopped debating legislation. That’s a disaster for a democracy.
Researched by: Rachel John & Aarthi Ramnath
First: The suspension spree
The trigger: for the suspensions was the gas attack on Parliament on December 13. Opposition MPs were furious that neither the PM nor Home Minister Amit Shah had bothered to address the Parliament—and answer their questions. Their vociferous demands resulted in the suspension of 13 Opposition MPs on December 14—primarily from Congress.
Suspensions, part two: On December 18, another 78 Opposition MPs were kicked out—this time for protesting the suspension of the original 13. You can see the Rajya Sabha Chairman Jagdeep Dhankar announcing the suspensions—in the midst of chaos:
Something to see: The now-peaceful Rajya Sabha has now found time for poetry:
Though to be fair, some women BJP MPs did call out sexist norms in the Lok Sabha. But no one said a word about the suspensions or the gas attacks.
Irony alert! After all 141 MPs were suspended, Home Minister Amit Shah arrived in Parliament to present the three bills that revamp criminal laws in the country
As for the Prime Minister: Modi-ji implied the Opposition was acting like ‘anti nationals’—giving comfort to those who attacked Parliament:
Unfortunately, what I have been witnessing is that the opposition is letting out its frustration of losing in the elections and giving political spin to the entire incident. They are even giving muted and indirect support to it which is worrisome. Giving support to the incident and saying things like what else they could have done is worrisome and condemnable.
How can they suspend so many MPs just like that?
About Article 118: The Constitution does not lay down any rules for how business ought to be conducted in Parliament. Article 118 merely states: “Each House of Parliament may make rules for regulations, subject to the provisions of this Constitution, its procedure and the conduct of its business.”
The ‘three readings’ rule: As per current parliamentary rules, each bill introduced in Parliament has to go through “three readings”:
- The first reading is when the government introduces the bill. The Opposition may challenge the bill at the very outset. It may then be referred to a parliamentary committee for more deliberation etc.
- During the second reading, the bill is supposed to be fully scrutinised—each clause is discussed and debated. The government may introduce amendments in response.
- The third reading is when all MPs in a house vote on the bill—and pass it to the other house—where it goes through second and third readings.
- Once both houses pass the bill, it is sent to the President—for his approval to become the law.
That’s the rule but it often becomes meaningless—usually when one party or the other enjoys a brute majority.
The rules around suspension: The Speaker and Chairman are responsible for maintaining order in the two houses. They have the power to force a member to leave the house—if their conduct is “grossly disorderly.” At one time, the Lok Sabha rules required a motion to be passed—before someone could be suspended. But in 2001, the Vajpayee-led BJP government did an end run around that requirement. The new clause read:
[I]n the event of grave disorder occasioned by a Member coming into the well of the House or abusing the Rules of the House persistently and wilfully obstructing its business by shouting slogans or otherwise, such Member shall, on being named by the Speaker, stand automatically suspended from the service of the House for five consecutive sittings or the remainder of the session, whichever is less…
The power of the Chairman in the Rajya Sabha is equally absolute. FYI: Revoking a suspension requires the consent of the majority—i.e the support of the ruling party.
But, but, but: According to former Lok Sabha Secretary PDT Achary, using these rules to order mass suspensions at this scale are unprecedented: “The rules had been formulated keeping unruly behaviour by individual MPs in mind, not for banning MPs by the bulk.”
Two factors…have enabled the Chair to function in a partisan manner. First, the constitutional design of the Chair does not include mechanisms for ensuring its independence from the political party on whose ticket the Chairperson won the election to Parliament. Second, the decisions of the Chair have been accorded finality, with no internal as well as external checks on their power, a situation which changed only very recently.
Historical precedent: In 1962, the first ever MP was suspended: Godey Murahari—an independent Rajya Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh. But suspensions remained rare. Indira Gandhi’s great nemesis Raj Narain was thrown out in 1971. And Mrs G herself was suspended in 1978.
As for mass suspensions: The only other such incident happened in 1989—under the Rajiv Gandhi government—which too enjoyed a comfortable majority in Parliament. Sixty three Opposition MPs were suspended for three days—which remains a record for suspensions meted out in a single day. The reason for extreme measures: The report of the Thakkar Commission on the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The government refused the Opposition’s demand to table the report—which suggested the involvement of her assistant and close confidante RK Dhawan.
The NDA track record: Suspensions have become far more common in recent years. A staggering total of 154 MPs have been suspended in the last 10 years. This number also includes multiple suspensions of the same MP. The greatest escalation occurred in the second term of the BJP-led NDA government—as this Hindu chart shows:
Well, Parliament is always like this—angry and noisy…
Sure, we’re all used to unruly legislatures with badly behaved netas. They often say egregious things, get into unseemly brawls—and throw the occasional chappal. But mass suspensions of the Opposition strike the heart of Indian democracy.
A representative democracy: Parliament’s core function is to offer a legitimate way to frame and pass legislation. It is the heart of representative democracy:
The laws passed by the Parliament enjoy a presumption of constitutionality only because they have been agreed to by both the houses of the Parliament, an institution that is premised upon the sacred will of the electorate… [I]t is assumed that the legislature in a representative democracy understands the needs of the electorate and the conditions of the time, and the executive government which pilots legislation through the competent legislature, is accountable to both the legislature and to the people whom the elected arm of government represents.
A deliberative democracy: Parliamentary debate is an integral part of the legislative process:
This presumption [of legitimacy of a law] is also premised on the fact that debate in the Parliament is one of the most fundamental means of ensuring democratic accountability. It is an affirmation that the executive’s will would be cleared through the legislature, only if it is in consonance with the will of the electorate, and any transgressions by the former shall be kept in check.
This is why Article 105 of the Constitution affirms each MP’s freedom of speech—so they can freely debate and vote in Parliament. The limits of that freedom are determined by rules of conduct—administered by the Speaker in Lok Sabha and the Vice President as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha
The ‘jaldi kar’ Parliament: Even before the suspensions, there was an alarming trend toward squelching any debate over bills. This became even more apparent in the second term of the BJP government. All laws approved in 2020 took less than 10 minutes to be passed in the Lok Sabha—and less than 30 minutes in the Rajya Sabha. These included the contentious farm laws that led to over a year of enraged protests—and sweeping labour codes that give more power to employers.
Also this: In 2023, we witnessed the sixth shortest debate over the Budget—with Lok Sabha spending a paltry 18 hours discussing it. Even so: “The proposed expenditure of all Ministries, amounting to Rs 42 lakh crore (Rs 42,000 billion), was passed without any discussion. In the last seven years, on average, 79% of the budget has been passed without discussion.”
The abbreviated Parliament: The sessions are becoming shorter than ever—yet the bills are being pushed through at a tremendous pace. For example, during the Monsoon Session this year, the Lok Sabha met for 43% of its scheduled time, while Rajya Sabha met for 55%. Yet a whopping 23 bills were passed—including key laws that decimated the power of the Delhi government, the digital data bill and the forestry bill—which has huge environmental implications. FYI: The forestry bill was discussed for just 38 minutes in the Lok Sabha.
Data point to note: The ‘three readings’ rule has become virtually meaningless. From 2009 to 2014, 71% of the bills were referred to standing committees.This number dropped to 27% between 2014 and 2019—and has been around 13% since 2019.
Where we are now: The Parliament is currently getting ready to pass three critical bills that will revamp our criminal laws—and give the government sweeping powers. Also on the agenda: the telecommunications bill that allows the government to take over any telecommunications network in the interest of public safety—and intercept emails and WhatsApp messages.
And it will pass these law with literally no opposition in sight:
- A total of 141 MPs have been shown the door—of which 96 are from the Lok Sabha.
- That’s 20% of all members in both houses—and 41% of the total number of Opposition MPs.
- This leaves 426 Lok Sabha MPs still on the floor—of which 290 belong to the BJP. If you add NDA allies, that number rises to 324.
- Most of the non-NDA members belong to ‘friendly’ parties like Biju Janata Dal, AIADMK, YSRCP etc.
- In the Rajya Sabha, there are only 99 Opposition MPs—out of a total of 193 remaining on the floor. There are 93 BJP MPs.
The bottomline: We leave you with what BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in Parliament back in 1972:
The election results have placed exceptional power and authority in the prime minister’s hands…all power is concentrated in New Delhi…Central ministers have been reduced to courtiers at the Delhi Durbar…the prime minister’s secretariat has become a parallel cabinet…the Prime Minister is standing at the pinnacle and her colleagues are lying at her feet… These days the atmosphere in New Delhi makes one choke. It is not easy to breathe freely. Raising a voice of dissent is looked upon as a revolt… how can those sitting in the Opposition fight all this?
The Print has the latest numbers in the Parliament after the suspension. Scroll has a must-read interview with former Lok Sabha Secretary General PDT Achary on the rules of suspension in the House. Hindu Businessline has a good data story on the increasing number of expulsions during the Modi government’s second term. The Leaflet highlights how the debates in Parliament are an integral part of democracy while The Wire highlights how that space is diminishing under the current government.