In the past week, Parliament was witness to some rather unfortunate developments. While the rest of the country lost sleep over Tunday Kababs, anti-Romeo squads, and cows, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre silently took the opportunity to cock a snook at basic parliamentary norms that are central to the way our democracy functions. In the Finance Bill, 2017, passed by the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, the Centre sought to amend 40 other Acts (possibly a record or sorts), including critical laws like the Representation of the People Act, Income Tax Act, Aadhaar Act, and Companies Act with little or no deliberation.
The Rajya Sabha, where the Modi government does not have a majority, was left in the dust and rendered irrelevant. For the uninitiated, the Finance Bill is classified as a money bill by the government. As per provisions of the Constitution, only the lower house is allowed to introduce money bills, while the upper house can only issue recommendations. With a majority in the lower house, the BJP can pass any bill, and not require the assent of the upper house. By any measure, the scope of this Finance Bill is unprecedented and in the words of NK Premachandran, a Member of Parliament from Kerala, "it is absolute backdoor legislation".
What are some of the amendments the government has introduced in the Finance Bill? The new Finance Bill gives income tax officials untrammelled powers to enter any property and search a person without issuing any real reason as to why they are conducting a raid. Amending the Companies Act, the Bill lifts the cap on how many donations a company can give to political parties. It also enables anybody to donate anonymously using electoral bonds issued by "approved" banks, after amending the Reserve Bank of India Act. In an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, which governs elections in India, the government has ensured that electoral bonds are anonymous. Aadhaar cards will now also become mandatory for filing income tax returns. Without possessing, or enrolling for Aadhaar, it won't be possible to pay taxes.
Ordinary citizens without Aadhaar will end up committing a crime of tax evasion. Another significant amendment is the merging of eight different tribunals into other existing ones. However, as Meghnad S, a public policy professional working with BJD MP Tathagata Satpathy, argues in a recent column: "The Finance Bill is supposed to only contain provisions pertaining to taxation and finances. So any other law cannot be included in it. If the government wishes to make changes in other laws, they should bring them in separately, have a debate on them and then put them up for vote."
Evidently, most of the significant amendments passed under the new Finance Bill have nothing to do with government spending or taxation. The strategy here is to undermine the Rajya Sabha, which our founding fathers had established to prevent "hasty legislation" and "serve as dignified chamber representing the federal principle". However, this is not the first time that the Modi government has sought to use this tactic.
In March 2016, the Centre passed the Aadhhar Bill, which in the words of PRS Legislative, a research firm, "intends to provide for targeted delivery of subsidies and services to individuals residing in India by assigning them unique identity numbers," as a money bill. Worse, in the recent passage of the Finance Bill, reports indicate that provisions about how much companies can donate to political parties, linking of Aadhaar and PAN card, and the merging of eight different tribunals were not even present in the first draft of the Finance Bill. These provisions were added surreptitiously without allowing opposition parliamentarians to register their objections to these amendments. Forget the fact that it is a money bill, the government did not even consider it worth their while to discuss these changes. One must note that these amendments have far-reaching consequences for the people of this country, and cannot be allowed to pass without proper deliberation and discussion. Ideally, some of the provisions in the new Finance Bill should have been brought in as separate laws.
To some extent, one can understand the Centre's hesitation in dealing with the Rajya Sabha, considering the past deadlock over pieces of legislation like the Land Acquisition Bill and Goods and Services Tax Bill, among others. Disruptions, stalling business and walkouts have increasingly come to define the present day Parliament's way of functioning, resulting in the adjournment of almost entire sessions. With the cost of running Parliament at a whopping Rs 2.5 lakhs per minute which is funded by the taxpayer, the government is rightly seeking to make the best use of the sessions available and conduct necessary legislative business. However, on Bills that have an immediate and far-reaching impact on the Indian citizen, the government must cede space to serious and detailed deliberations. The Centre cannot pass whatever Bills it wants to with impunity.
Theprocess must be consultative and deliberative, and the government cannot subvert basic parliamentary norms to pass whatever legislation it wants. The government seems to be in a hurry to pass individual bills without any serious deliberation, which is deeply problematic for Indian democracy. There is little doubt that the Modi government is a popular democratic force. By undercutting the Union Parliament, however, it is exhibiting some of the worst tendencies of a majority government.
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