The Parliament session, from September 14, will see many firsts. The Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha will alternate their sittings so that members can spread over both chambers to ensure physical distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the visitor galleries will be occupied by the MPs. There will be 18 sittings without any weekend break or holiday. The break, between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., would be used to disinfect the chambers. The presiding officers of both Houses have had trial runs, but it will be a tough act for them and the MPs — who are used to huddling together and speaking aloud — to deliberate across two chambers and keeping a safe distance from one another. There will be no Question Hour, though members can get written answers to written questions. The Zero Hour, where any member can raise issues of urgent national importance, will not be an hour, but only 30 minutes. The Opposition has gone quiet on these changes in parliamentary modalities after some initial objections. Recently, the Assemblies of Opposition-ruled States, Kerala, Rajasthan, Punjab and West Bengal, met and none of them had a Question Hour.
The executive branch has expanded its power globally, in the wake of the pandemic, and not rarely, using it as a facade for aggrandisement. The attenuation of Parliament, overshadowed by a strong executive, has been a concern in India even before the pandemic. In ensuring executive accountability and voicing people’s concerns, Parliament’s role was found wanting. In lawmaking, it was increasingly being railroaded by the executive. These unhealthy trends appear to have been accelerated by the pandemic. The government must be held accountable by Parliament on the management of the pandemic, but that is not all. There is a long list of issues that requires detailed attention and deliberation by people’s representatives, such as China’s aggression on the LAC, the challenges on the economic front, the Centre’s refusal to meet its commitment to States under the GST regime, the coming election in Bihar in the midst of the pandemic, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, and worsening ties with India’s neighbours. The Congress has been combative on these issues while the government has not been very responsive. Regional parties in power appear too overwhelmed by the pandemic to pay attention to other issues. The government has 11 Bills to replace ordinances. The Bill to replace Taxation and Other Laws (Relaxation of Certain Provisions) Ordinance, 2020, which will seek to amend the Income Tax Act to enable 100% deduction to donations made to the PM CARES Fund, is a controversial one among them. The Opposition and the government must work together to turn the session into an opportunity to share views on all these questions, and present a united, reassuring front before the country.