India Needs a Reminder on How Parliament Is Supposed to Function

It goes against all rules that the Rajya Sabha chair refused to hold a vote on the farm Bills despite being asked to do so.

What happened in the Rajya Sabha on Sunday has attracted national attention, of course for the wrong reasons.

Pandemonium in the Houses of Parliament is nothing new. Angry members troop down to the well of the House and shout slogans. It has almost become normal behaviour in the Houses. Not being satisfied with just the shouting of slogans, one member went to the extent of spraying pepper spray in the Lok Sabha when the House was discussing the Telangana Bill some years ago. Thankfully, this form of protest was not repeated in the House thereafter.

The general public normally disapproves of unconventional conduct by members of parliament inside the House. But before blaming the members, it would be useful to analyse the causes of protest and the resultant pandemonium. It can be said without any fear of contradiction that often, strong resentment is caused by the stubborn attitude of the government in a particular issue such as the refusal to allow a discussion on what the opposition considers to be an important issue or the passing of a controversial Bill in haste, ignoring the opposition’s demand to refer the same to a committee for a detailed examination etc.

If these are the issues, they can be easily tackled by the government being a little flexible and accommodating towards the opposition. Governments are often found less accommodating and more stubborn. Everyone should remember the famous dictum: “In a parliamentary system, the opposition should have its say and the government will have its way.” If this practised in real life, our parliaments will get back to being a forum of calm and mature debates.

Also read: The Way Farm Bills Passed in Rajya Sabha Shows Decline in Culture of Legislative Scrutiny

Two points emerge from the Sunday’s happenings in the Rajya Sabha. One, the farm Bills were passed during the extended time without arriving at a consensus in the House. When the House has to extend its sitting beyond the scheduled time, the sense of the House is taken by the chairperson. This is the time-honoured practice. If there is no consensus on an extended sitting, the chair normally adjourns the House for the next day. It is not clear whether any attempt was made by the chair or the minister for parliamentary affairs to build a consensus on this matter.

The parliamentary affairs ministers plays a crucial role in such situations. He is placed in a position where his intervention can diffuse the tension in the House and ensure smooth transaction of business. Here, the name of great parliamentary affairs minister K. Raghuramaiah comes to mind. He was in charge of parliamentary affairs in Indra Gandhi’s cabinet. He had an excellent rapport with the opposition, which was in fact numerically very weak.

Indira Gandhi’s government had a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. Although the government did not need any kind of support from the opposition, Raghuramaiah would be seen most of the time moving around the opposition benches seeking their support on issues. He would sit with the leaders and even ordinary members of the opposition and always would try to build consensus on various issues. Once, a member from the opposition jokingly told the prime minister, “Your parliamentary affairs minister has joined the opposition.”

Parliament is a very sophisticated system which needs to be worked with a certain finesse. Mutual trust, accommodation of each other’s larger interests and respect for each other’s views make it possible to build consensus on issues which come before the parliament.

The second point is that division (vote) was not allowed although members demanded it. The Bills were passed by a voice vote in the din. Article 100 of the constitution says that all questions in a sitting of the House shall be determined by a majority of votes of the members present and voting. This Article clearly says that majority will be determined by means of voting. The constitution does not mention voice vote. Nevertheless, this is done in the ordinary situations, but when a member demands a vote, the chair has to allow it. The majority cannot be precisely determined by a voice vote. That is why the Rules of the House provide for actual voting.

Also read: Can the Govt Unilaterally Scrap Question Hour During the Entire Parliament Session?

Under no circumstances can the chair ignore the demand for a vote (division) and go ahead and declare the motion passed through a voice vote. In case there is chaos in the House and it is not possible to conduct voting, the chair adjourns the House for some time. He then calls all leaders to his chamber and tries to bring about an agreement for the smooth conduct of voting. This is not a new thing. It has always been done by the chair. What was so extraordinary about the demand for voting in the Rajya Sabha is not clear.

The chair performs an unenviable job in controlling the House and running it in accordance with the rules of the House. It is the duty of the government and the ruling party to help the chair conduct the proceedings smoothly. It was clear from the TV telecast that ruling party members, including ministers, were going to the chair frequently and ostensibly suggesting that he do things in a particular manner. Under no circumstances should the chair be put under any kind of pressure. In the House, the secretary general is the authorised officer who can advise the chair on all procedural matters. If the chair goes by his sane advice, much of the trouble could be avoided.

A government which has a majority in parliament has nothing to fear. Parliament can function smoothly only if the crudity of bitter adversarial politics is discarded ant the stakeholders elevate themselves to a higher level. Parliament’s systems are designed to enable the opposition to have its say and the government to have its way. If the former is not possible, parliament as a democratic institution cannot survive for long.

P.D.T. Achary is former secretary general of the Lok Sabha.