Not known to mince words, former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee is a scathing critic of ordinances. Dola Mitra meets him on a cold January evening at Bolpur, Shantiniketan, where he tells her that Manmohan Singh would never have resorted to ordinances even if he had led a majority government. “He is a gentleman,” Chatterjee says of the former PM. Asked if he is planning a second book, his prompt response is, “Why? Isn’t one book enough?”
Are ordinances undemocratic?
An ordinance can be unconstitutional, undemocratic and even illegal. Just as a law can be challenged for the violation of the Constitution, so can an ordinance. It can be challenged in principle too. But our Constitution is a marvellous piece of work and it does provide the executive with the right to bring in ordinances according to the need of the hour. It is not to be abused, however.
Are the ordinances promulgated by the NDA government illegal?
I will not pass judgement on the legality of the current ordinances.
But are you satisfied with the government’s explanation that significant issues cannot be kept pending?
The more significant the matter, the more it requires a debate in Parliament and is therefore less eligible to be legislated via ordinance. Is there an emergency? Under circumstances of natural disasters or war, ordinances can be passed when Parliament is not in session.
What about ordinances related to insurance and coal?
Very important matters have been dealt with hurriedly, without any discussion in Parliament. Parliament’s importance in a democracy is immense. It is the only deliberative body. You cannot bypass that. As I said, legislation by ordinance on important matters is not desirable at all.
Can a government with a clear majority in the Lok Sabha not claim that it has a mandate to fulfil?
There has been no opportunity for standing committees to hold discussions on these issues. The NDA government has promulgated the ordinances because it knew they would get stuck in the Rajya Sabha. They did not promulgate the ordinances on merit or because there was an urgency. It was just that they wanted to show people, “Look we are doing many things in the first six months, we have passed important legislation”. But this is not the way to legislate.
What if the government says it needs to get things done for growth and development? What’s wrong if Modi wants to be seen as a doer?
It is true that for the country’s development and progress, investment is necessary. Greater industrialisation is also necessary. But that does not mean that such legislation should be brought that would allow our key sectors to be controlled or set up only by foreigners.
Several ordinances relate to bills which could not be legislated when the UPA was in power. Why does Narendra Modi seem to be more successful than Manmohan Singh?
Manmohan Singh was constantly made to feel like an underachiever. His public image was of someone who was not in command. He was made to feel that he was someone who “cannot get it done”.
Who made him feel like that?
Look at the way the media has treated him. It is horrible the way he is portrayed in that book (Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister). It is shameful the way this other book (Natwar Singh’s One Life Is Not Enough) brings him out. The former prime minister is a gentleman and an honest person.
Had Manmohan Singh headed a majority government like Modi, wouldn’t he have pushed through ordinances?
No. Knowing him, he’d have allowed a discussion in Parliament. He is conscious of the legislative position and the extent of his authority as prime minister.