Changes in rules must not undermine legitimate legislative tactics and free speech of MPs.
Parliament’s Budget Session has resumed and will last a month. Usually, this phase is extremely productive in terms of deliberation and discussion, debate and legislation, and for the conclusion of the budgetary exercise. Unless there are exigencies, the government and the Opposition, and of course the Chair, approach the session with sobriety and purpose.
This year may be different. The primary reason will, no doubt, be the aftermath of the pogrom on the streets of Delhi. After the carnage, the government has a lot to answer for. However, two days into the session, it seems that the ruling party has decided not to allow Parliament to function. Another reason, almost surreptitious, is that a radical process for rewriting the rules of the Rajya Sabha has begun. This will have serious implications for Parliament and our democracy.
The story began in 2018. In that year, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, M Venkaiah Naidu, constituted a committee of two retired civil servants to look into the rules, and suggest possible amendments. The suggestions of the two-person committee have been placed before the General Purposes Committee (GPC) of the Rajya Sabha.
Recently, a meeting of the GPC was called for this purpose. The GPC usually consists of leaders of all parties and groups in the Rajya Sabha. This specific GPC meeting, however, did not have representation from the Nationalist Congress Party, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Communist Party of India. The chairman, thankfully, gave his assurance that these parties would be represented in future GPC meetings.
As a member representing the Trinamool Congress, the third largest party in Parliament, I am conscious that reforms to the rules of the Rajya Sabha cannot be brought about in a hurry. These rules were written by our Constitution framers after much thought. Amendments, too, require serious analysis and discussion. The two-member committee of ex-bureaucrats had several rounds of consultations. I expect the GPC, too, will meet on several occasions. After the GPC concludes discussions, its report will be forwarded to the Committee of Rules in the Rajya Sabha. Eighty percent of the members of the Committee of Rules belong to the ruling dispensation. It will then offer its view. The final report, shaped by the Committee of Rules, will be laid on the floor of the House, and put to vote.
This is the process. What is the content of the reforms? The government is advocating changes to make the House more orderly, its conduct smoother, and disruptions less frequent. On paper, these sound unexceptionable. In reality, are they an attempt to silence the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha? Are they an attempt to defang the Opposition from asking hard questions and holding the government accountable in Parliament?
The late Arun Jaitley, a distinguished member of the Rajya Sabha, advocated the right to disrupt, calling it “a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through parliamentary instruments available at its command” in case “parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability”. He said this in August 2012. The following month, his colleague, the late Sushma Swaraj, another stalwart of Parliament, said, “Not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy like any other form.”
What Jaitley and Swaraj were suggesting was that parliamentary discussion and debate were not just a function of time but also of quality of discourse. Parliamentary proceedings cannot be measured in minutes and hours. They have to be measured in terms of the quality of subjects. How many issues raised by the Opposition are allowed for discussion by the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government in the first place? In 2012, the BJP scuttled an entire session of Parliament demanding a discussion on the coal scandal. Today, the ruling dispensation wants to make such protests and such legitimate parliamentary activism impossible. They want to deny the Opposition opportunities — and want to protect the government from interrogation even though it had itself availed such opportunities when in Opposition.
Let me cite another example. “Parliamentary strategy” is usually decoded by parties before the session starts, whereas “tactics” have to be made on the floor of the House by the leaders of the parties. A crucial tool available to members of the Rajya Sabha is Rule 267. This allows Opposition members of Parliament (MPs) to highlight an important issue, by suspending all other business for the day by taking up the “hot subject” for discussion. I came to the Rajya Sabha in 2011. One of the members of the Opposition at that time is now a high-profile minister. He was known to use Rule 267 notices very effectively. Within a year, we joked and called him the “king of 267”.
What is the status of Rule 267 now? It has been virtually abolished. The last instance of admission of a notice under Rule 267 was in November 2016. Since then, members have repeatedly raised demands for admission of notices under Rule 267, but, always, absolutely always, such demands have been rejected.
Rushing to the well of the House is another useful parliamentary tactic. It is used by members to intervene effectively, especially when denied the right to other tools. Moving to the well of the House and using Rule 267 are well-established practices of the Rajya Sabha, used throughout parliamentary history by members of all political backgrounds. Any attempt to curb or remove such instruments is not just a violation of long-standing parliamentary conventions but fundamentally anti-democratic.
Neither is it necessary for the rules of the two Houses to mirror each other. The Constitution envisions distinct roles and functions for the two Houses of Parliament. The rules have to support their independent character. The GPC has to preserve the unique character of the Rajya Sabha by enshrining provisions independent from the Lok Sabha. As Dr S Radhakrishnan, speaking as the first chairman of the Rajya Sabha, said, “There are functions which a revising chamber can fulfil fruitfully. Parliament is not only a legislative but a deliberative body.”
The onus is on the GPC to balance the freedom of expression of MPs while ensuring the smooth functioning of the Rajya Sabha. We must reject any changes in the rules that attempt to abridge freedom of expression of members and the rights conferred on them by the Constitution. The GPC cannot use the process of changing rules to manacle and muzzle the Opposition.
[This article appeared in Hindustan Times | Tuesday, March 03, 2020]