Ironical it may sound, but seen in concrete terms, under the Indian Constitution, the Vice-President (V-P), not the President, has got a more onerous responsibility. The President, the country’s highest Constitutional dignitary, acts as per the advice of the Council of Ministers, headed by the Prime Minister. But, the V-P is his own master when he performs the highly complex job of running the Rajya Sabha (RS) as its chairman. It is on his sense of judgment and capacity to earn respect as well as fear from the members that RS’s productivity or efficiency is critically dependent. It is all the more so when the government does not have a working majority in the House.
Thus, V-P elect Venkaiah Naidu has a critical role to play in the days to come since Narendra Modi government has not been able to bring in crucial legislations because of its inability to overcome the formidable hurdles in the RS. Even if the ruling NDA has got many important legislations passed in the Lok Sabha (LS), these have not been converted to laws, getting floundered as they do in the RS where the Opposition parties constitute the majority. In fact, this has been the biggest handicap as far as the efficacy of Modi government over the last three years is concerned.
Of course, in our Constitutional practices, the RS has been described as the ‘Upper House’ because it is the House where the legislators are supposed to deliberate on issues at a deeper level like the elders do in a family. This is the House, which should take a more holistic view of the country as a whole. In the process, it could play the role of a speed-breaker for the government. But that has not been the case. The RS has virtually become ‘a House of obstructions’ instead of being ‘a House of deliberations’.
Over the last three years, there had been occasions when Naidu’s predecessor Hamid Ansari lamented over the unproductive legislative works in the RS. He appealed many a time to the members ‘to introspect on this state of affairs, to desist from approaches and practices that demean the stature of the RS’, and urged them to make the fullest possible use of the instrumentalities of accountability and discussion available to them under the Rules of Procedure. But his appeals went in vain.
One available research suggests that the performance of the RS since 16th LS, constituted in 2014, has been dismal. For instance, in 2015, while the LS sat for a whopping 727 hours, the RS clocked only 422 hours’ sitting. While the time lost in LS due to disruptions and forced adjournments was 67 hours (9 per cent), the corresponding figure in RS was 206 hours (48 per cent). Based on this, the research concluded that while the efficiency of LS was a decent 91 per cent, it was only 52 per cent in RS. One is reasonably sure that this trend must have continued more or less in 2016 as well, given the number of adjournments in and virtual paralysis of the RS over issues such as demonetisation, farmers’ suicide and corruption-related investigations by the central agencies against the important Congress leaders.
What exactly have been the methods adopted by the Opposition parties in general and the Congress in particular to paralyse the RS? It has been done through shouting slogans, displaying placards and storming into the well. And both the Chairman and Deputy Chairman have been sensitive to the agitating Opposition. They have been virtually coerced to adjourn the House.
One recalls how on a much lesser misbehaviour by today’s standards, the then RS Chairman Dr S Radhakrishnan had expunged certain portions of the speech of a member and said (September 27, 1955): “We want to maintain the good name and dignity of this House. Every one of us is interested in that as much as I am. I do not want it to be said that sometimes these discussions suggest that we are not behaving like serious, responsible Members of Parliament but rather like irresponsible professional agitators. That impression even all members of this House to whatever side they may belong, should avoid. We must be careful and preserve our good name and our dignity. That is what I am anxious about.”
The ‘Chair’ in the RS needs to play a proactive role, exercise his power inherent in ‘the Rules and Procedures of the Parliamentary Practices’ and take exemplary actions against members who deliberately create disturbances in the functioning of the House by ignoring or disobeying the Chair. The Chair can ‘name’ or request the sergeant-at-arms to remove the disturbing member. An unruly member can be suspended too for his or her misbehaviour. According to the Rules of Conduct and Parliamentary Etiquette of the RS, “The House has the right to punish its members for their misconduct whether in the House or outside it. In cases of misconduct or contempt committed by its members, the House can impose a punishment in the form of admonition, reprimand, and withdrawal from the House, suspension from the service of the House, imprisonment and expulsion from the House.”
One hopes Naidu to become a proactive Chairman. Maintaining RS’s discipline, decorum and dignity is of paramount importance for the Indian democracy.
Senior journalist, author and strategic analyst