The government on March 14 got the Union Budget 2018 passed without any discussion in the Lok Sabha.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley moved the Finance Bill, which consists of taxation proposals of the Budget, and the Appropriation Bill, which details the spending for each department, and had them passed through a voice vote in a House where the ruling alliance has absolute majority.
The government used the “guillotine” process, by which all outstanding demands are put to vote at once whether or not they have been discussed.
While the two Bills will now go to the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House does not have powers to make changes to them, as they are Money Bills and will be considered approved if it does not return them within 14 days.
What is more, while the President of India can assent or withhold his assent to a Bill, or return a Bill for reconsideration, his powers do not extend to the Money Bill.
The livid Opposition on Wednesday raised cries of “murder of democracy” in the Parliament. It is not wrong. After passing several legislations – including the Aadhaar Bill – as Money Bills in the past, this is another example of the BJP’s scant regard for parliamentary processes, which were put in place precisely to prevent misuse of absolute Lok Sabha majority by a party.
What is guillotine
Every ministry’s demand for expenses and grants are to be discussed in the Parliament, and the Business Advisory Committee allots time for each. If the allotted time has elapsed because the House was debating other pressing issues and some ministries have not been discussed, the speaker applies the “guillotine”, and all outstanding demands, whether discussed or not, are put to vote at once.
The guillotine, thus, is an emergency measure to be used when time is short and key legislations need to be passed. The BJP seems to have used it because it could not be bothered to listen to others.
The Budget session is to go on till April 6. What was the hurry to pass the Union Budget of the country within an hour, without any discussion?
Among the matters not debated include an amendment to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which allows the BJP and the Congress to escape legal scrutiny for foreign contribution they have received since 1976.
According to PRS Legislative, the spending on the ministries of Railways, Agriculture, Youth Affairs, Road Transport and Highways and Social Justice and Welfare – amounting to 28 per cent of the Budget and impacting every citizen of the country – were to be discussed. They were not.
Ministries that were to be discussed: Railways, Agriculture, Youth Affairs, Road Transport and Highways and Social Justice and Welfare. This would amount to approximately 28% of the total budget. None of the ministries were discussed. pic.twitter.com/GZeHD6MfzF— PRS Legislative (@PRSLegislative) March 14, 2018
The government’s reasoning for using the guillotine supposedly is that the Opposition has stalled the proceedings of the House with protests over various issues, and would delay the passing of the Finance Bill.
However, avoiding discussion on a Bill as important as this for “fear of disruptions” calls the very purpose of the Parliament – where elected members from various parts of the country, representing different interest groups, discuss matters that impact all of us – into question.
In fact, the Opposition has accused the government of engineering the disruption in the Parliament to avoid a discussion on the banking scam. The protests in the House so far have been over state-specific issues – special status tag to Andhra Pradesh and the Cauvery water board for Tamil Nadu.
The Centre had tried to apply the guillotine on March 13, and the Opposition had taken this up with Speaker Sumitra Mahajan.
“As per the parliamentary practices, without deciding/informing the date and time of guillotine and passing of Finance Bill to all party leaders, it is quite unusual to include them in the list of business… This shows the government's arrogance and unilateral move to bulldoze (through) all the financial business without discussing them,” it had said in its letter to her.
Clearly, the Speaker was not convinced.
More worryingly, this is not the first time that the BJP seems to have taken its absolute majority as the licence to run its writ in the Parliament, subverting the country’s democracy.
Last year too, the Finance Bill had been streamrollered through the Parliament, and the BJP had faced accusations of “smuggling in” several key amendment without adequate discussion – Jaitley introduced 30 pages of amendments less than 48 hours before the legislation was taken up for scrutiny.
Add to this the government’s penchant to introduce key legislations, such as the Aadhaar Bill, the Black Money Bill, as Money bills, so that the Rajya Sabha, where it does not have a majority, cannot impede them.
Money Bill tyranny
It is important to mention here that when the Finance Bill 2017 was passed unilaterally as a Money Bill, "the clause mandating the highly fraud-prone Aadhaar, or the biometric-based unique identity number issued by the UIDAI, (Unique Identity Authority of India), for filing income tax returns and to obtain and retain PAN cards, in addition to making it compulsory for availing a number of government services, as well as welfare subsidies for some of the most vulnerable groups" was smuggled into it as a last-minute amendment on March 21, 2017.
Subsequently, ordinary citizens were forced to provide their Aadhaar numbers to avail the most basic of services — for admission to schools and hospitals (even in cases of emergency), for having birth and death certificates issued, et al. The Aadhaar juggernaut, enforced through a Money Bill, dominated every aspect of an Indian's life by subverting fundamental rights such as privacy and equality enshrined in our Constitution.
As this 2017 article in DailyO points out, “Since the Aadhaar Act contained incidental expenditure in the Consolidated Fund, it was stated to be a Money Bill. Once that is done, the Rajya Sabha can discuss it but not pass amendments binding on the Lok Sabha. That is why this manoeuvre was called the subversion of democracy since it choked up discussion on Aadhaar which does more than using unique identification for service delivery.”
The government, however, seems to use it as convenient change of nomenclature to get passed the legislations it wants.
Jaitley had, in fact, famously made his distaste for the Rajya Sabha known by saying that “the Indian democracy cannot be a tyranny of the unelected”, though he himself is an MP from the Upper House.
A world where the BJP has more numbers than the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha too is scary to contemplate, with the Lok Sabha already witnessing the tyranny of the majority party.