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Virtual Parliament to Corona Combat

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By Devender Singh Aswal

The corona pandemic has made the traditional parliamentary proceedings untenable. So, parliaments around the world are adapting to the unprecedented health challenge thrown by the novel coronavirus. Many Parliaments have become virtual or hybrid to facilitate remote participation by the members. Some Members of the Opposition in our parliament are demanding, and rightly, virtual committee sittings as they meet more frequently during the recess. The committees – hailed as ‘parliament at work’ – too need to have remote participation as they transact a great deal of business and exercise unremitting oversight over the government. The Monsoon Session of parliament is almost two months away. It’s therefore opportune to go virtual, or to begin with, have a hybrid parliament to enable the MPs carry out their constitutional duties during the Corona pandemic or till the threat persists.

Notably, the European Union Parliament switched over to online voting from 26 March. Britain’s House of Commons, a great stickler for its hoary customs and conventions, made history on 21 April, 2020, by approving a new measure allowing some business to be done remotely. Following the markings to stay six feet apart from one another in the chamber, some MPs will be allowed to physically attend the chamber, as part of a “hybrid” approach’ said the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, which is ‘a first step toward a completely virtual Parliament’. Tynwald, the parliament of The Isle of Man, a British protectorate- and considered to be the oldest continuous parliament, became virtual before the British House of Commons. The virtual sittings of the House of Commons, Canada have also started. Brazil, Spain, Norway and Finland have amended their laws to allow remote sittings. Maldives, a tiny island, has also started hosting remote plenary and committee sittings and New Zealand has set up a special parliamentary committee which, sitting remotely, conducts government scrutiny.

The Indian Constitution, unlike the Australian Constitution, does not mention the place of assembly of MPs in session yet the summons issued by the President under clause (1) of article 85 of the Constitution, mentions New Delhi as the place of assembly and also the appointed date and time. Clause (3) of article 100 provides that ‘Until Parliament by law otherwise provides, the quorum to constitute a meeting of either House of Parliament shall be one-tenth of the total number of members of the House’, making it unambiguously clear that the MPs have to be physically present. Clause (1) of article 118 empowers each House of Parliament to make rules for regulating, subject to the provisions of the Constitution, its procedure and the conduct of business. The validity of the proceedings in Parliament cannot be called in question in a law court on the ground of any alleged irregularity of procedure [art.122(1)]. In view of the explicit constitutional provision and the unbroken practice of holding the sittings of Parliament physically, it necessitates changes in the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business of both the Houses to hold sittings of the Houses in virtual or hybrid form so as to enable MPs to participate in the proceedings from their remote locations. In a hybrid Parliament, since there would be physical quorum satisfying the minimum constitutional requirement, the Constitution need not be amended except for a complete virtual Parliament. Requisite changes can be effected in the rules and suitable procedure devised by building consensus amongst leaders of political parties and groups but the initiative for the virtually enabled parliament has to come from the Government.

Since Parliament cannot assemble physically due to social distancing norm or lockdown, it must work differently, being the guardian of our democracy. Parliamentarians’ continued scrutiny and support is essential to maintaining public trust and confidence in the government’s pandemic strategy. The flaws and pitfalls can be revisited and course corrections made by the government when different – often discordant – voices from across the socio-political spectrum and geographical spread find resonance in parliament. So the rules ought to be amended to enable the parliamentarians to conduct their core constitutional duties of holding the government to account, passing legislation (which will entail online voting or decision by each member), and performing their representational functions. This also calls for identifying and prioritising essential business during the crisis, leaving certain matters like private members’ business for physical parliament. The Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha chambers are commodious enough to meet the requirement of quorum if members stay six feet apart from one another as per the distancing norm. Once the government and the benches opposite see eye to eye, technical and procedural changes, being matters of detail, can be thrashed out consensually. In fact, started by Somnath Chatterjee and pursued tenaciously by the successive speakers, considerable work has already been done for an e-parliament. Surely, our parliamentarians, an overwhelming majority of them, will welcome the virtual/hybrid Parliament, as a temporary measure enabling participation in the House/committee proceedings from remote locations. Hopefully, adversarial party politics will take a back seat in a time of national crisis and parliamentary scrutiny will help course correction where needed and inspire greater public confidence in the pandemic strategy of the government. Albeit public galleries would be deserted and the debates devoid of the usual sound and fury and disruptions, yet a virtual parliament is preferable to parliamentary lockdown. There will be technical glitches and bumps along the way, but parliament must modernise, innovate and go virtual to meet the new challenges. This will also further the goal of digital India and make our democracy more participatory, inclusive and accountable.

Devender Singh Aswal is ex-Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, and author of many books on parliament.