Time to junk 60-day-a-year norm for Assembly?

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By Sandeep Sahu

The abrupt adjournment of the winter session of Odisha Assembly on Thursday, a full fortnight ahead of schedule, follows the pattern set during the last few years. Even Assembly regulars would be hard pressed to remember the last time when the House lasted a full scheduled session.

The winter session, which began on December 1 and was scheduled to have 24 working days to end on December 31, was not even half way through when the government suddenly discovered that it had ‘no more important business to transact.’ If that indeed was the case, why did the Business Advisory Committee ask for 24 working days in the first place? If there was no ‘important’ business left to conduct after yesterday, what was the House supposed to do for the 15 days that were still left of the session? Carry on with ‘unimportant’ business or while away time gossiping in the House? [Mercifully, the government has not claimed that in curtailing the session by 15 days, it was saving the lakhs it would have cost the state exchequer if the Assembly lasted its full scheduled session!]

Having realized that there is little they could do to prevent an early closure in the face of the steamrolling majority that the BJD enjoys in the House, even the Opposition parties appear to have resigned themselves to the fait accompli. May be that was the reason they raised only a perfunctory protest accusing the government of ‘running away’ when chief whip Ananata Das moved the motion for the Assembly to be adjourned sine die only to quietly retreat once it was passed by voice vote.

The truth is just about the only point of interest for the treasury benches in the just concluded session was the passing of the Appropriation Bill for the supplementary budget. That it also managed to pass three other Bills during the drastically shortened session was as much due to the brute majority that the ruling party has in the House as due to its adroit ‘floor management.’ In the event, the Assembly conducted normal business only on two days, six days having been lost to pandemonium and the ninth lost to an adjournment after the death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.

An RTI query has revealed that there have been just three years – 2006, 2010 and 2012 – since 2004 when the Assembly has met the stipulation of meeting for at least 60 days a year, a norm ironically fixed during the Chief Ministership of Biju Patnaik, Naveen Patnaik’s father and the man after whom his party is named. Given that every session this year has had a premature closure with no less than 15 days yanked off the winter session in one go, the shortfall in 2016 could be even higher than the 18 days it was in 2007.

There is little doubt that the curtailment of every single session is a reflection of the increasing arrogance of the ruling party, which has a brute majority of 118 members in a House of 147. But the irony is that the 60-day rule was framed when the Janata Dal had 123 MLAs in the House, a feat yet to be equalled by the party formed by his son in his name. Steeped in the values of the independence movement, Biju Patnaik was a true democrat who never felt the need to shy away from the Assembly. When he was the Chief Minister, he made it a point to be present in the House every time there was a discussion on an important topic. In sharp contrast, his son has seldom stayed in the House beyond a few minutes on a given day, preferring the relative quiet of his chamber in the Assembly instead. Even when he has been present, the Chief Minister has rarely spoken in the House or intervened in debates. There have been plenty of occasions when other ministers have replied on his behalf to questions pertaining to departments headed by him.

It is thus clear that indifference – even disdain – for the august House has more to do with one’s mindset than numbers. Politician of the old school that he was, Biju Patnaik believed the Assembly and its proceedings were sacrosanct. For Naveen Patnaik, in contrast, the Assembly is an unavoidable chore that must be endured periodically to fulfill constitutional requirements.

Given the gross indifference that the BJD supremo has displayed for the Assembly, especially since his third term, one wonders why he doesn’t take the lead in abolishing the 60-day norm fixed by his father. After all, why have a rule that you have no intention of following?

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