There was no question hour; no well for members to come streaming into; no place for placards and banners; no visitors in the galleries peering excitedly into the two houses to watch democracy at work and history being made. Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha were virtually unrecognisable, shrouded in plexiglass and an air of sorrow, as Parliament got down to work on the first day of the monsoon session.
The melancholy was underlined by obituary notices in both houses, which suspended work for an hour in memory of fallen comrades. These included former President Pranab Mukherjee, former Minister for Rural Development Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, sitting Lok Sabha MP H Vasanthakumar (Kanyakumari), sitting Rajya Sabha MPs Amar Singh, Beni Prasad Verma and M P Veerendra Kumar.
Everything was different. The only time MPs stood up was to remember those who had died. Points were made sitting, and objections too. In the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Choudhary pronounced — while remaining seated — that democracy had been “strangulated” because the question hour had been scrapped. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said — whilst seated — that the opposition had been consulted and had concurred with the decision. This was one of the few occasions when those who had died protecting society from Covid-19 were paid tributes. Soldiers, who had died defending the borders, were also remembered, something that does not happen routinely.
Surreal experiences were to follow. New MPs took oath in the Rajya Sabha, and those noticeably frail had to be assisted by helpers clad in white PPE suits and surgical rubber gloves, looking like figures from Star Wars. Shibu Soren (Jharkhand Mukti Morcha) gasped out his name, read out his oath punctuated by long, shuddering breaths and was helped back to his seat by an assistant to an almost audible collective sigh of relief. In the Lok Sabha, Farooq Abdullah, 82, sat looking grim, upright and defiant, this being his first appearance in Parliament since August 2019 when he was put under house arrest.
Much was made of the “new normal”. No one was allowed into the Parliament House complex unless they could show they were Covid negative. Upon testing, 26 MPs were found to be Covid positive, making many fellow MPs extremely jittery. Huge gaps marked spaces between MPs, and those sitting in the first-floor galleries had to speak extra loudly to be heard.
But Bills were passed super-efficiently, although opposition MPs said it was early days yet. The National Commission for Homoeopathy Bill and the National Commission for Indian System of Medicine Bill sailed through after minimal debate in the Lok Sabha, although members said more consultation should have been held. While defending the Bills, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan made a case for the government’s handling of the pandemic. “With our endeavour to manage Covid-19, India has been able to limit its cases and deaths to 3,328 cases and 55 deaths per million, respectively, which is one of the lowest in the world as compared to similarly affected countries,” he said. No one contested this, which in itself was a record of sorts.
In the Lok Sabha, the government introduced the agricultural reforms promulgated as ordinances, which will be turned into Bills: the Farmers’ Produce Trade And Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill. Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar, while assuring that minimum support price system would stay, unnerved many by pointing out that only 14 per cent of Indian farmers benefitted from MSP, considering 86 per cent had holdings smaller than 2 hectares. Fears of dilution of MSP and interference by the Centre in an area that is the domain of the state governments is making the opposition restive.
In the Rajya Sabha, in an attempt to lighten the mood, Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu joked that some members were sitting in the Lok Sabha without being elected to it. The reference was to Rajya Sabha MPs seated in Lok Sabha galleries because there wasn’t space for all in the upper house.
However, in the background, it was politics as usual. Today was the election for the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman, and Harivansh of Janta Dal (United) won against Manoj Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. YSR Congress and Biju Janata Dal, which might have been on the fence, announced they would vote for the National Democratic Alliance. A surprise was the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), which opted to abstain, possibly in a show of independence after the Bharatiya Janata Party announced its intention of reviving its Telangana unit. Shiv Sena voted with the opposition, but paid warm compliments to the man they opted to vote against.
How the session functions for the remainder of the term is to be seen. Prime Minister Narendra Modi contented himself today with making a brief statement, asking Parliament to come together to support soldiers who are standing in bitter cold on the border. But he is expected to make a statement in the coming days on tensions on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and then fur is sure to fly. Outside Parliament, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh warned that farm reform Bills and other legislation, which undermines India’s federal structure, will be opposed. That’s when the gloves — or should we say, masks? — will be off.