At any time, people across the country have questions to ask the Central government. After all, Central policies and plans impact the people in so many ways, like food security, housing, taxes, infrastructure, education and employment. In the last couple of years, several states, including Assam, have been more dependent on Central schemes for their welfare; because under the new devolution formula, the states’ parlous finces make it difficult to intervene on their own. But demonetisation has taken this urgency to question the government to a whole new level. It is arguably the most radical, if not disruptive, economic reform measure any Central government has ever undertaken. Common people desperately wanted to know how long they will have to keep taking this bitter medicine, what the government intends to achieve by it, whether it has a clear roadmap to go about it, and how much the massive exercise will cost. More specifically, the people would have liked to know whether the new Rs 2000 note too would get junked or phased out quietly, how soon the RBI presses can churn out the smaller denomition notes into their hands, to what extent the government is planning to make them go for cashless transactions, whether such transactions will be reliable and secure. But these questions among others remained usked in Parliament in the just-concluded Winter session. People’s representatives found it more comfortable to indulge in political posturing and shouting each other down. The Opposition parties took Prime Minister rendra Modi to task for refusing to speak in Parliament about his surprise move, even though he has been arguing his case in other public fora. The treasury benches in turn have pointed to Opposition intransigence in not allowing the PM to speak until and unless he sat through the entire debate in both the Houses. In between, President Prab Mukherjee had to remind MPs (but to no avail) to do their job as ‘leaders are not elected to sit in dhar in Parliament.’
The near complete washout of this session has prompted Biju Jata Dal (BJD) parliamentarian Baijayant Jay Panda to offer returning a part of his salary ‘proportiol to the time wasted and lost’. Fellow MP BJP’s Prahlad Singh Patel has commented that while Panda, ‘of prosperous background’, can afford to be ethical — ‘others may need that salary’. But whether MPs need their salary or not, the taxpayer certainly does not need to see public money being wasted in fruitless parliamentary sessions. The latest PRS legislative report has termed this to be the ‘least productive sessions for both Houses in the last 15 years’. The Lok Sabha worked for 15 percent of its scheduled time, passing four bills on urgent fincial matters including the taxation amendment bill. The Rajya Sabha worked for 18 percent of its time, the only significant legislation it cleared being the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, which the Lok Sabha passed on the session’s fil day. Other important legislations like the ones on Goods and Services Tax (GST) have been left pending. A dismayed Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari said all sections of the House need to introspect on the distinction between dissent, disruption and agitation. Now if parliamentarians at the country’s highest seat of democracy confuse the right to disagree or protest with the right to disrupt, what hope do common people have of ever being rid of bandhs and hartals which gives lumpens the license to disrupt public life? Some political observers believe the entire demonetization issue has sowed confusion among all political parties, unsure of how voters will react. The NDA government’s argument has oscillated from the need to strike at black money to the need for cashless (or less cash) economy. Opposition parties with eyes firmly fixed on assembly polls in states like UP, Punjab and Gujarat next year, are caught between protesting ‘public inconvenience’ due to cash ban and standing for black money cleanup. But whatever be their confusions or political compulsions, our parliamentarians ought not throw away valuable opportunities to question and debate constructively.