Coronavirus and the Constitution – XX: Parliamentary Accountability

We have already discussed on this blog how the government’s measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak at both the state and union levels have bypassed legislative accountability (here). In this post, I want to expand the discussion on legislative accountability by exploring three points: (1) the legislature’s role in placing temporal limits on the executive’s emergency powers; (2) how involving the legislature incentivises policy scrutiny and increases transparency; and (3) understanding whether Indian legislatures could have continued to function. I use the term ‘parliamentary’ accountability, but the argument is equally applicable to legislative assemblies in the states. The goal of this discussion is not to suggest that parliament continuing to function would have served as a silver bullet to bad policy or governmental overreach. Rather, the idea is to explore how the democratic structures of our Constitution can act as a restraint on government power – making it imperative that we demand more from our elected officials.

The legal sources of the government’s measures are the Disaster Management Act 2005 (“DMA”) and the Epidemic Disease Act 1897 (“EDA”). Under these two laws, the government has issued several ‘guidelines’ that form the legal framework of India’s ongoing ‘lockdown’. We often think that legislatures, with their lengthy debates, committee procedures, and voting are cumbersome bodies not suited to the decisive action required in an emergency. The truth of this is debatable. For example, the numerous clarifications and addendums to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ circulars demonstrate the value of debate and committee scrutiny. However, the choice of the DMA and the EDA become especially significant when we consider the two courses of action the Constitution itself provides for dealing with extreme situations calling for immediate action: (1) declare a constitutional emergency; or (2) pass an ordinance. Both a constitutional emergency and the passing an ordinance require that the legislature (at some future point) ratify the government’s actions. Therefore, we can conclude that even the most extreme situations contemplated by the Constitution involve some legislative oversight. The DMA and the EDA however bypass the legislative branch altogether resulting in a “rule by executive decree”. This has some important consequences.

The temporary nature of emergencies

Emergency powers are fundamentally temporary. The term ‘derogation’ is often used to explain the relaxing of some legal requirements during periods of crisis – but such relaxations are essential exceptions to the ordinary rule of law and all derogations have a recognised beginning and most importantly an end. When the crisis subsides, the political and legal system must return to normal. When a constitutional emergency is proclaimed under Article 352 of the Constitution, the emergency automatically ceases after one month if not placed before Parliament and (if approved) again automatically ceases after six months unless re-approved by Parliament. Even ordinary legislation granting wide emergency powers such as the U.S. PATRIOT Act (enacted in 2001 to fight terrorism post the 11 September attacks) contained a ‘sunset’ clause providing that large parts of the Act would cease to operate in 2005 unless renewed. An even more poignant example is the U.K.’s Coronavirus Act. Before it was passed, the (then) Coronavirus Bill granted the government emergency powers for two years. After the opposition objected, the government agreed to amend the Bill – providing that the House of Commons must debate and renew emergency powers granted by the Bill every six months. In evaluating the Coronavirus Bill, the House of Lords’ Constitution Committee noted: “Two years would have been too long for these powers to have operated without reapproval by Parliament and we welcome the cross-party agreement to reduce the period to six months” (here). The rationale behind granting the executive sweeping emergency powers is therefore always contingent on (1) the existence of a crisis; and (2) a return to normalcy at the earliest possible instance.

The following questions now become relevant. Who declares the start of an emergency? How long will the emergency last? Does it need to be renewed? Who is responsible for its renewal? Can the legality of the declaration be challenged in a court?

Precisely because an emergency vests significant powers in the executive, it makes sense that another body should be responsible for the declaration of an emergency. Otherwise what stops the executive from invoking an emergency in manner that is at best frivolous, and at worst self-serving. For example, a government could declare an emergency and use its emergency powers to silence political dissidents. In the U.S. even though the executive is tasked with all operational aspects of fighting a war, the executive cannot take any action unless the legislature (Congress) first passes a declaration of war. The U.K.’s unwritten constitution contains no notion of emergency powers and the executive is entirely reliant on the legislature first passing a legislation enabling the executive to exercise any additional powers. The same principle applies to renewals, it makes sense that a body other than the executive is responsible for renewing the executive’s emergency powers. Requiring another body to determine whether a situation is truly exigent and how long it will likely last for is an essential check against the abuse of emergency powers by the executive. This is a significantly stronger check than having courts adjudicate on the legality of the emergency proclamation after it is made as the damage may already be done by the time the court delivers a verdict (especially at the pace the Indian Supreme Court currently hears politically sensitive cases).

The Indian Constitution does envision Parliament playing a crucial role in the declaration of constitutional emergencies by requiring that all emergency proclamations be placed before Parliament within one month. Admittedly Parliament’s record of acting as a check on the executive with respect to emergency proclamations is a poor one – in July 1974 Parliament ratified the Indira Gandhi government’s emergency proclamation leading to three years of systemic governmental overreach. One may assume given India’s model of parliamentary democracy (where the executive’s party commands a majority in the legislature), legislative ratification is a forgone conclusion. While the individual judgement of parliamentarians has been severely curtailed by the anti-defection law, there still exists the chance (especially in coalition governments) that the government will have to work harder to appease the various factions of its own support base. Moreover, having even a token debate in parliament is a significant improvement on the current situation.

It is important to understand that the DMA requires no formal declaration of emergency (even under the Act’s own framework). Therefore, the ground reality is that the executive has been granted sweeping emergency powers, the courts are virtually at a standstill and public gatherings have been outlawed – all without an emergency being ‘declared’ or any justification for when exactly the coronavirus became an emergency or any indication of when the emergency will end. (The use of the term ‘notified disaster’ was used widely in the media but has no relation to the beginning or ending of the government’s emergency powers and only concerns the use of disaster relief funds.) It is particularly important to recognise that the coronavirus outbreak may be with us for a while. The nationwide ‘lockdown’ has already been extended twice. Much like the ‘war on terror’, what seemed necessary as an immediate response can perpetuate a permanent derogation from the rule of law. In a Parliament approved emergency, ratification by Parliament may have been (and with good reason) a foregone conclusion in March, but three, six or nine months later the government may have faced some pressure to justify a renewal of its emergency powers. Under the DMA however, they face no such pressure to justify a continued resort to emergency powers. Therefore, it is crucial to create temporal boundaries on the invocation of emergency powers and it is submitted that ratification by parliament is one method to do so.

Incentivising parliamentary scrutiny

The ratification of emergency proclamations and ordinances by Members of Parliament creates a powerful incentive for them to scrutinise government action and can require the government to moderate its position. During the coronavirus outbreak Italy used ‘Decree-Laws’ – a decree issued by the government which must be placed before the Italian Parliament within sixty days (here). Similarly, in India, an ordinance cannot be enacted unless Parliament is not in session and must be placed before Parliament upon its reassembly. The ordinance expires unless expressly passed as a piece of legislation by Parliament within six weeks of Parliament reassembling. What this means is that parliamentarians are on the hook for the legal content of these measures. While this may be less of an incentive for members of the ruling party, it creates an incentive for members of the opposition to scrutinise the legislation. Parliamentarians are held electorally accountable for their votes for or against a legislation and draconian measures by a government are unlikely to pass without some form of debate and scrutiny when brought before Parliament. For example, recently the opposition forced multiple adjournments in the Lok Sabha until the government agreed to discuss the communal violence in Delhi (here).

This brings us neatly to the point of parliamentary questions and debate – where members of the opposition have unfettered access to government ministers. Although the actual mechanisms of questions and the debate (or ‘zero-hour’) in Parliament are worth an independent exposition a few key points may be made here. The first is the nature of the threat we are currently facing. Unlike a war with another nation or the fight against ‘terrorism’ where increased transparency may hamper the government’s efforts to defeat the threat – in a public health crisis more transparency is always better. The government should disclose the scientific data on which it bases its decisions. This will not hamper the fight against the coronavirus but will expose bad decision making. Second, unlike questions asked in a newsroom or addressed on social media, questions asked in Parliament form part of the official record of the House and can be used to hold ministers accountable (here). Third, unlike the news media, Members of the legislature cannot be silenced by the courts (see Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution under which Members enjoy legislative privileges). The Supreme Court’s recent efforts to silence ‘fake news’ and instead mandate reliance on information produced by the government and the statements of the Solicitor General of India make this particularly relevant. Lastly, parliamentary proceedings are broadcast live on national television and on the internet.

There is a deeper point to be made here. Government transparency, and ministerial accountability is fundamentally tied to the broader question of electoral accountability. During proceedings in parliament, it is government ministers who answer questions. This allows voters to evaluate the performance of the government first-hand in an unfiltered manner. To date, a Joint Secretary from the Ministry of Health has given almost all the coronavirus press briefings. The Joint Secretary is an unelected official and making such an official the face of the crisis disassociates ministerial responsibility from the actions of the government in combatting the crisis. Even in the U.S. where the President is not politically accountable to the legislature (outside the extreme case of impeachment), as the head of the executive the President has continued to deliver daily press conferences and answer questions – in stark contrast to the head of the executive in India. Neither the Health Minister not the Prime Minister is legally obligated to give press briefings, but their refusal to do so makes Parliament one of the last forums where the government can be asked hard questions.

Could Parliament have continued to function?

This post would not be complete without addressing the elephant in the room. On 23 March 2020 Parliament was adjourned over fears that the gathering of Members would act as a vector for transmission. Two questions must be answered: (1) can Parliament legally meet outside its official seat; and (2) what the alternative options that Parliament can adopt are. Article 85 of the Constitution permits the President to summon Parliament “at such time and place as he thinks fit” and Rule 11 of the ‘Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha’ states that “A sitting of the House is duly constituted when it is presided over by the Speaker or any other member competent to preside over a sitting of the House under the Constitution or these rules.” (Rule 10 of the Rajya Sabha rules contains an analogous provision.) Therefore, the short answer is that the place of meeting does not matter so long the President summons Parliament and the Speaker, or other competent person, presides over Parliament. (Interested readers may refer to Shubhankar Dam’s article on precisely this point. He cites historical instances where the ‘place’ of meeting has been in dispute.)

Therefore theoretically, Parliament can meet at an alternative location that is more conducive to social distancing norms or even potentially online. Some comparative context is useful here. Several countries, Australia, New Zealand and Germany amongst them, have struggled to keep their legislature’s open and have adjourned them during the present outbreak. However, Congress in the U.S. has met several times to pass emergency economic legislation. The House of Commons in the U.K. has met virtually, with Members asking questions from remote locations. Similarly, the Canadian Parliament has managed to meet virtually. Perhaps most tellingly, the Indian Supreme Court and various High Courts have managed to implement protocols to allow virtual hearings for thousands of litigants since the beginning of the ‘lockdown’. There would certainly be some teething troubles, but it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to assume that the Indian Parliament could continue to function during the ‘lockdown’. I will end this discussion with two points. As I noted earlier, Parliament sitting is not a silver bullet to all the country’s ailments – given the legislative frameworks which already exist under the DMA and the EDA and the ever present anti-defection law Parliament’s role would certainly be limited. However, eliminating Parliament from governance during an emergency is neither contemplated by the Constitution nor is should it be condoned by the voters who elected this Parliament. At the very least, the limited benefits of Parliament sitting highlighted here could be secured.

Concluding thoughts

Notions of accountability flowing from a separation of powers model focus on preventing the centralisation of power in one body. For example, the body making the law should be distinct from the body implementing or interpreting the law. However, this model fails to incentivise those in power to listen to citizens. Legislators in the minority can blame those in the majority, the government can blame the judiciary for curbing its measures, and the judiciary can blame an overzealous legislature or the executive (see the eternal dispute over judicial appointments).

Competition for power through democratic structures creates a vital link between citizens and their agents in government. It forces the three wings to look beyond horizontal competition inter-se the executive, the legislature and the judiciary and consider a vertical balance of power where rival power seekers must convince citizens of their ability to effectively govern. This is particularly effective in a plural society such as India where there exists a multiplicity of groups with cross-cutting interests and membership, forcing those in power to cater to a wide range of interests. Parliamentary accountability is one of the best examples of how competition for power can further the interests of citizens. ‘Politicking’ during a crisis may be frowned upon but is also an excellent method to ensure that the citizen’s preferences are accounted for in governance. It forces those in power to accommodate the needs of more diverse interests or risk losing the mandate to govern. A healthy legislative body should ensure this robust competition for power. The strength of the Indian parliament as a deliberative body which can hold the government accountable has been in decline for some time, but the present crisis should not be its death knell.

3 thoughts on “Coronavirus and the Constitution – XX: Parliamentary Accountability

  1. The highly unpopular but legally tenable view: The Epidemic diseases Act is unconstitutional as it is arbitrary , lacks a definitive legitimate aim . NDMA orders are ultra vires and unconstitutional. What the govt. should have done was pass a coronavirus ordinance / act like the UK did. That would have automatically ensured all checks and balances, transperancy etc . Would be ensured . Hopefully future holds a robust challenge to these acts and orders.

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