Constitution of the 17th Lok Sabha brought Parliament back to life last week. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP returned to office for the second consecutive time with absolute majority, increasing its tally from 282 in the 16th Lok Sabha to 303 in the 17th House of the People.
It was after several decades that a government came back to power, with even greater membership in the House. No wonder, for this miracle, “Modi, Modi,” shouts greeted the Prime Minister when he took oath as member on Monday. Nearly half of the new 542- member Lok Sabha comprises first-timers, elected as its members for the first time.
There are 78 women members in the House, the highest-ever. In spite of such a transformation, the two-day oath-taking by the members showed that little had changed. After the feeble “Jai Shri Ram” chanting in the beginning, the background slogans became louder, as the days progressed, and slowly members, appearing before microphones for oath, themselves uttered Bharat Maata Ki Jai, Allahu Akbar and Jai Maa Kali with gestures whenever possible. This was certainly unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, and those freely expressing themselves, exposed the “polarisation” of the House on sectarian lines, ignoring how Pro-tem Speaker Virendra Kumar felt about the situation. Among the Opposition, responding to BJP’s Jai Shri Ram slogans, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar of Trinamul Congress raised arms, shouting Jai Maa Kali, while AIMIM’s Hyderabad MP Asadudsin Owaisi, concluded his oath with Allahu Akbar.
Divisions in the House came to the fore again on the last day of the week when the Government insisted on introducing The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2019, also known as the Triple Talaq Bill, aimed at punishing Muslim men for pronouncing instant divorce by uttering “talaq” thrice. Shashi Tharoor (Congress Party); N K Premachandran (RSP) and Asaduddin Owaisi (AIMIM) opposed the introduction of the Bill itself and sought clarifications from Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Their arguments were that the proposed law violated fundamental rights of Muslim men, could bring more misery to Muslim women, and unnecessarily converted a civil wrong into a criminal act. Prasad said the law was needed for gender justice as the pernicious practice of instant divorce was continuing in spite of the Supreme Court judgment against it.
The Opposition demanded division on the issue and the House was divided on its very first usual business day. An unfinished agenda of the 16th Lok Sabha, the Bill was declared introduced by the new Speaker Om Birla, with 185 votes in favour, 74 against, and six abstentions. The last Lok Sabha had passed the Bill but it lapsed as it remained unpassed by the Rajya Sabha. President Ram Nath Kovind in his address to a Joint Sitting of Parliament on Thursday had given the government line on the Bill when he said securing “equal rights for every sister and daughter in the country, eradication of social evils like ‘Triple Talaq’ and ‘Nikah-Halala’ is imperative”.
Second-time member from Kota in Rajasthan, Om Birla was unanimously elected Speaker on Wednesday. Felicitating him, the Prime Minister recalled Birla’s long career of social service, even as he represented Kota in the State Assembly. Leader of the Congress Party Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, five-time MP from Bengal, said his party believed in debate, dissent and decision and hoped the Speaker would be impartial in the House. Pinaki Misra of the BJD said that Bills be always referred to Standing Committees’ scrutiny. Several members recalled Nehru’s words that the Speaker represents the dignity and freedom of the House. Birla said the Government should respond to all issues raised by the members. He told members to stick to rules and not move around the House.
Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu asked members to worry about the loss of work through disruptions. The party position in the House changed when four Telugu Desam members, including leader Y S Chowdary and deputy leader C M Ramesh, who disrupted proceedings on the Andhra Pradesh special status issue in previous sessions, joined the BJP, raising its strength from 71 to 75 in the 245-member House, which has nine vacancies at present.