Are Joint Sessions of Parliament the Last Resort for NDA ?The NDA government at centre has decided against issuing any further ordinances. It has already issued 10, including the controversial land acquisition and mining ones. The opposition has charged the government of misusing its powers to bypass the parliament and enact laws which is the prerogative of the parliament. Even president Pronab Mukherjee was agitated enough to question the government on the need to introduce the land acquisition bill as an ordinance.
By Sunil Garodia
But how did matters come to such a pass that a democratically elected government had to resort to issuing ordinances? The last parliament session was reduced to a farce by an opposition bent on not allowing the elected government of the country to either introduce or get much needed bills passed. They even refused to allow discussions on some bills, seizing upon comments by BJP leaders outside the parliament or other issues. (Although this was like giving the BJP its own medicine as the party had indulged in the same tactics when the UPA was in power. This is a malaise faced by democracy in India, where disruptions rule more that informed debate). The net effect of this was that several important bills, urgently required to push forward PM ModiÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬Ã¢"Â¢s growth agenda and to bring the economy back on rails, were not made law. While some bills were passed by the Lok Sabha where the ruling dispensation has a majority, they got stuck in the Rajya Sabha where it has just 59 out of 245 members.
The government seems to have realized that ordinances should be the last resort. But what other avenues are there for it to get bills passed. The makers of the Indian constitution have provided for a joint sitting of both the houses, where bills other than constitutional amendment bills, can be passed by a simple majority. Although it is difficult that in those heady days of complete Congress dominance any one could have thought of a day when the ruling dispensation will not have the numbers in the upper House, a joint sitting of the Houses was provided for precisely because the Constituent Assembly did not want the country to suffer for the lack of numbers a ruling alliance might have in the Rajya Sabha. It is another matter that till date only three bills have been passed through this route. This was because the need did not arise. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong in calling a joint sitting of the Houses if the provision exists in the constitution.
However, the constitution provides checks against its misuse too. According to Article 108 of the constitution, a joint sitting of both Houses can only be called if a bill has been passed by one House and rejected by the other, if the two Houses have disagreed on the amendments to be made in the bill, or if more than six months have elapsed after a bill is passed by one House but is not passed by the other. Additionally, as stated above, a joint session cannot be called for constitutional amendment bills.
There is another option before the government. An ordinance will have to be ratified by parliament within six weeks of its reconvening. As of now, there is little chance of that, with the opposition not willing to accommodate the government on this issue. The government can keep on reissuing the ordinances till such time it is able to get them passed in parliament. Although there are precedents of governments having done that (the last UPA government did this to two bills) but this route can at best be a stop gap arrangement and would not enthuse investors in the Indian economy, already aggrieved by the propensity of the government to enact retrospective tax laws. It is also difficult to say whether the president will keep on signing them ad infinitum, sparking a constitutional crisis.
Hence, the NDA government is more or less decided to call joint sessions of the Houses to get important legislations passed. The numbers, even in such a scenario, are not very comforting for the ruling dispensation. The NDA has 59 members in 245 member Rajya Sabha and 336 in a 543 member Lok Sabha, making a total of 395 out of a joint 788 members. This translates to 50.01 percent. It will be touch and go unless the government either manages to have some opposition parties to absent themselves or actively support the bills. For despite a strong whip, there can be some MPs from its own ranks who might not be able to attend the session for various reasons, including illness.
But a joint session cannot also be a guarantee that the bills might be passed even if the government is able to muster the numbers. The opposition parties, who have excelled in disrupting parliament, might resort to the same tactics and may not allow the tabling of, or discussion on, the bills ÃÂ¢Ã¢âÂ¬Ã¢â¬Å let alone voting. However, if the government is able to get the numbers, it can ask the chair to call for a voice vote and get the bills passed through lung power. I am sure the reader is getting as repulsed reading about the impending scenario as I am writing about it. Democracies are not expected to function in this manner, but if it does come to this, I believe it is better than to have legislations in limbo and the country held to ransom by an intransigent opposition.