COVID-19 debates in Parliament: India deserves a better Opposition, one that holds the government accountableAbdul Gh Lone 11 December 2021 0 COMMENTS
Third December of the ongoing Winter Session of the Parliament witnessed a rare scene. The daily routine of disruptions and adjournments gave way to a whopping 204 percent productivity in Lok Sabha as 96 members of the Lower House debated COVID-19 for over 11 hours till midnight to record a milestone.
It may seem that the Opposition — that wastes no time in accusing the government of being unwilling to run the House and puts the onus of their daily disruptions on the Centre — would have come prepared to put the ruling party on the mat by asking probing questions. After all, an 11-hour debate presents ample time for issues to be debated threadbare, especially when it comes to the pandemic that is threatening to unleash yet another wave on us in the form of a new variant, Omicron.
It is a testimony to the Opposition’s high-on-drama and low-on-substance approach to the proceedings that the debate offered by Opposition lawmakers on Covid-19 was a study in banality. If we take this as a marker, then the Opposition’s performance, or lack of it, has been consistent throughout.
Analysing PRS Legislative data, professors Shamika Ravi and Mudit Kapoor in their paper for SSRN point out that “in the 15th LS (Lok Sabha), when NDA was in the opposition and the UPA formed the government, then MPs from NDA and the UPA had similar attendance (76.6 percent for UPA vs. 75.2 percent for NDA). However, in the 16th Lok Sabha when NDA formed the government and the UPA was in opposition, then MPs from the UPA were significantly less likely to attend the parliament as compared to MPs from the NDA (75 percent for UPA vs. 85 percent for NDA).”
The professors also pore over the data on questions asked by the Parliamentarians through the 15th and 16th Lok Sabha. They find that NDA MPs while in Opposition “asked on an average 326 questions, which was significantly higher than the average number of questions asked by MPs of the ruling alliance, the UPA, at 240. However, in the subsequent 16th LS when NDA was the ruling alliance and the UPA was in the opposition, then MPs from NDA asked on an average 266 questions, while MPs from the UPA asked on an average 293 questions, and this difference was insignificant at the
In terms of vaccination rate, India overtook the US (which had a headstart over India) in terms of the total number of vaccine doses administered in June 2021 with 32.36 doses. In October, India reached the milestone of 100 crore shots of which 65 percent of the vaccine doses administered were in rural India. That feat earned India worldwide praise.
The fact that India has administered more than 130 crore doses to its citizens so far is an incredible achievement, considering the complexities involved in inoculating such a vast population. The measure of India’s success can be gauged from the fact that European nations, which enjoy greater resources, are struggling to vaccinate their citizens. Six EU nations, for instance, still have overall vaccination rates below 55 percent, according to Bloomberg. Europe, resultantly, is staring at a steep rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths and has taken a variety of steps to combat the crisis, including lockdowns for the unvaccinated. The crisis could be greater still if the Omicron variant, which has affected at least 274 people across 19 European nations, becomes more virulent.
Europe’s grim situation has got the World Health Organisation “very worried”, and WHO’s regional director Dr. Hans Kluge told BBC recently that “500,000 more deaths could be recorded by March unless urgent action is taken.”
This is why, despite India’s relative success so far, it is imperative that we do not drop the ball. Overall, 25 Omicron cases have been detected so far in India, and according to Friday’s health ministry briefing, “all cases are mild”. Still, questions remain over-vaccinating children, administering booster doses and ensuring that at least half the population are fully vaccinated.
An informed debate over this issue in Parliament should have seen questions around these data points, but instead, Opposition lawmakers such as TMC MP Mahua Moitra were more interested in quoting Bob Dylan or passing acerbic comments against Hindi and Hindutva. Some referred to the 1962 India-China conflict while some had issues with the prime minister’s picture on the vaccine certificate as if no other substantial points were worth noting.
This infantilisation of the COVID-19 debate by the Opposition is tantamount to dereliction of duty and one hopes that we will be witness to more reasoned debates on this topic in the future.