Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.Express illustration | Mandar Pardikar

A relook at the rules of the houses

Parliament runs according to strict rules. Some of them stem from British practices, others were moulded later. Some rules may be revisited to improve the working of the legislature

The new Lok Sabha started with the president addressing both Houses of parliament. Article 87 of the Constitution provides for this address, which contains details of the government’s programmes for the year. It is repeated every year. This practice was adopted from Britain, where the monarch addresses the Houses of Lords and Commons jointly at the beginning of the year.

The interesting thing about this address is that it is prepared by the government and the president only reads it. The president cannot make any changes in this address. The reason is that in the parliamentary form that we have, the government is accountable to parliament and, therefore, it is responsible for whatever is said in the address.

Parliament is run on rules. No one can raise a matter in the House without the support of the rules. The rules being followed today are, in a way, a continuation of the standing orders of the Central Legislative Assembly of British India that have been suitably modified since independence. There is a view among parliament watchers that some of the rules need to be revisited to give more freedom to the members and to dilute the absolute discretion vested in the Speaker without, of course, compromising his authority in any way. A few examples can be cited.

Rule 43, relating to questions, says that a question can be disallowed when the Speaker feels “it is an abuse of the right of questioning or is calculated to obstruct or prejudicially affect the procedure of the House”. It’s not clear what those words mean. Rule 41 lays down a plethora of conditions that govern the admissibility of a question. So, in the normal course, a question that conforms to these conditions should be admitted. In other words, an MP has the right to have a question admitted if it conforms to these conditions.

Then why should the Speaker have the power to disallow any question on the vague grounds laid down in Rule 43? It must be remembered that the right to ask questions in parliament flows from Article 75 of the Constitution, which says the Council of Ministers shall be effectively responsible to parliament. The Speaker’s discretion to disallow a question may be seen as a case of infringement of a constitutional right of MPs. Therefore, a case can be made for the revocation of Rule 43(1) of the Rules of Procedure in the Lok Sabha.

Now, if a question is disallowed, the MP has no right to make a representation to the Speaker. It is an irony that the Constitution gives the right to every person to make a representation to an authority, but MPs are not allowed to make a representation to the Speaker if his or her question has been disallowed. (M N Kaul and S L Shakdher, 6th edition, Page 504)

After the president has delivered the address, it is customary for both Houses to debate it. Article 87(2) mandates such a debate on matters referred to in the address. This debate takes place on a motion named ‘Motion of Thanks’ in each House. It is odd that the Motion of Thanks to the president is subject to amendments. This time, there was a case of amending the motion by the opposition in the Rajya Sabha because the ruling party did not have a majority.

This can be seen as being rude to the president. In fact, this procedure described in the rules is not in conformity with Article 87 of the Constitution, which simply says the Houses shall discuss the matters referred to in the address. It does not mention any Motion of Thanks. By this article, a debate can be raised on the address with or without a motion. After the debate, a separate resolution can be adopted unanimously by the Houses thanking the president for the address.

Thus, the ignominy of amending the motion can be avoided, and a more dignified way of expressing their gratitude to the head of the state can be adopted.

Both Houses have equal rights in the matter of passing laws. The only exception is in Money Bills, which are defined in Article 110. Any Bill that deals with taxation, withdrawal of money from the Consolidated Fund, government borrowings, etc is a Money Bill. The Rajya Sabha has no power to pass or reject a Money Bill. It can only make a recommendation, which may or may not be accepted by the Lok Sabha. Thus, only the Lok Sabha has the final say on money Bills. Under Article 110(3), it is the Speaker who certifies a Bill as a Money Bill. Such a certificate becomes crucial when the ruling party does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. In the 16th Lok Sabha, even an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951 was certified as a Money Bill, thus escaping the scrutiny of the Rajya Sabha.

The Supreme Court is seized of this matter, but it has not moved towards a resolution on it. It is necessary to review Article 110(3) as well as the gamut of provisions relating to the role of the Rajya Sabha in financial matters. We have just followed British practice in this regard. But our Rajya Sabha is unlike the House of Lords, whose financial powers were taken over by the Commons in a century-long confrontation with the lords, who are not elected.

Voting procedure in parliament needs to be revisited. On most occasions, the Houses decide issues by voice vote, which is not clearly sanctioned by the Constitution. Article 100 says that all questions shall be determined by a majority of votes of the members present and voting. This article implies that all questions should be decided by recording the votes. Majority can be determined only in terms of numbers. It is a matter of crucial importance.

The new Lok Sabha is unique in that the opposition has 234 members. A large dose of wisdom would be needed to navigate the House through turbulent waters. If the politicians act wisely and with tact, this Lok Sabha can create history.

(Views are personal)

P D T Achary

Former Secretary General, Lok Sabha

The New Indian Express