Rethinking role of presiding officers in Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha will lead to better functioning of Parliament

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First Post, October 12, 2020

As widespread protests against the controversial farm bills continue in large parts of the country, the role of the Parliament as a deliberative body seems to have been rendered illusionary.

One of the main factors responsible for this has been the non-observance of constitutional conventions by the presiding officers in both the Houses, ie The Speaker in the Lok Sabha and The Chairperson in the Rajya Sabha (and in their absence, the Deputy Speaker and Deputy Chairman respectively). In India’s parliamentary system, the presiding officers regulate the conduct of the business of the Houses and are the sole authority for every procedural decision. Because of the way these presiding officers are appointed, more often than not a member of the ruling coalition is the presiding officer in the two Houses of the Parliament.

Constitutional conventions have required presiding officers to be non-partisan in their conduct, yet, in recent years, their conduct has been far from that.

Two critical examples in the Lok Sabha are the presiding officer’s arbitrary certification of the controversial Aadhaar Act as the money bill and their non-acknowledgement of the Opposition party leader as the statutorily recognised Leader of Opposition. On the other hand, in the Rajya Sabha, the presiding officer declared the previously mentioned farm bills as passed after a voice vote against which multiple Opposition members had protested. The Opposition members’ request for a physical counting of the votes was denied without providing any adequate explanation.

Opposition members, as well as constitutional experts, have contended that these rejections were in violation of the rules of procedures of the Parliament. After the passage of the controversial farm bills, the presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha also suspended eight Opposition MPs for ‘unruly behaviour’. It is worth noting that these are not isolated events, and such incidents have been witnessed since the start of the BJP tenure in 2014.

While this would just scrape the surface of the manifold problems facing Indian democracy, reforming the way presiding officers are appointed is a vital step to ensure Indian democracy’s sustainability. Consequently, we propose a radical shakeup to the way presiding officers in both the houses are appointed that would call for the appointment of two Associate Speakers and two Deputy Associate Speakers in both the Houses on the first day of the respective Houses. The ruling coalition would appoint one Associate Speaker and one Deputy Associate Speaker, and the other Associate Speaker and Deputy Associate Speaker would be appointed jointly by the Opposition coalition and non-aligned members.

The two Associate Speakers would alternate as the presiding officer every six months. In the absence of the Associate Speaker, the respective coalitions Deputy Associate Speaker would fill in as the presiding officer. So that there is an alteration between the sessions an Associate Speaker gets to preside over, the sessions an Associate Speaker presides in a given year get reversed in the following year.

The Indian Parliament has three sessions over the year: The Budget Session (January to May), the Monsoon Session (July to September) and the Winter Session (November to December). Effectively, one Associate Speaker would be the presiding officer of the Budget Session in a given year and the other Associate Speaker would handle the Monsoon and Winter Sessions. So that there is an alteration between the sessions, an Associate Speaker gets to preside over, we suggest that the sessions an Associate Speaker presides in a given year get reversed in the following year.

Simply put, if in a given year an Associate Speaker presides over the Budget Session, in the next year they would preside over the Monsoon and Winter Sessions. Considering the term of the Lok Sabha is five years, one Associate Speaker would preside over three Budget Sessions and two Monsoon and Winter sessions. The other Associate Speaker would preside over two Budget sessions and three Monsoon and Winter Sessions. In a democratic system, it would only be fair that the ruling coalition gets to decide how they would like the division of sessions to take place. Though prudence would suggest that the ruling coalition would prefer that its Associate Speaker presides over three Budget Sessions considering their importance.

In the Rajya Sabha, there would be a different logistical issue. Members of the Rajya Sabha have six-year terms with a third of the seats in the Rajya Sabha up for election every two years. Thus, the ruling and Opposition coalitions in the Rajya Sabha are more dynamic. In the case of the Rajya Sabha, we suggest that the Associate Speakers be appointed for two-year renewable terms to account for the changing compositions of the House.

This new setup could drastically reduce the abuse of their powers by the presiding officers.

Ruling coalition Associate Speakers would be careful about exploiting their authority when presiding officers, for the fear that their coalition might face retribution when the other Associate Speaker is the presiding officer. The same would go for when the non-ruling coalition Associate Speakers are presiding officers. They would be cautious before playing hardball to avoid backlash when the tables are reversed. Knowing that within the same year a particular Associate Speaker’s coalition might need cooperation from presiding officers not aligned to their coalitions, they might be compelled to undertake their role as a presiding officer fairly. Such a change in the way presiding officers are appointed would allow the conversion of the present system, which currently does not promote cooperative outcomes to one which does.

In the current system, constitutional conventions, which themselves seem to face erosion and lack the same strength as they had in earlier times, are the only checks on presiding officers. This is also why we propose alternating six-month terms where Associate Speakers preside over different sessions. For example, if each of the Associate Speaker in the Lok Sabha served as the presiding officer for a continuous term of two and the half years, they might not feel the need for any short-term cooperation with coalitions they do not belong to. This could potentially result in a Lok Sabha which would see two and a half years of aggressive policymaking by the ruling coalition followed by two and a half years of obstructionism. On the other hand, knowing that within the same year a particular Associate Speaker’s coalition might need cooperation from presiding officers not aligned to their coalitions, they might be compelled to undertake their role as a presiding officer efficiently and fairly. The same logic applies if Associate Speakers acted as presiding officers for continuous terms in the Rajya Sabha.

Critics might raise objections with our proposals stating that this would curtail the ‘will of the people’. However, considering the role of the presiding officer is technically to regulate parliamentary procedures and ensure the efficient conduct of the business, such concerns are slightly overstated. Furthermore, bearing in mind the significant misuse of the position of the presiding officer, which has the effect of threatening democracy itself, this might be a cost worth bearing. Moreover, it is believed that the success of parliamentary democracies is highly dependent on the effectiveness of the Opposition parties.

Completely isolating the Opposition parties is itself detrimental for democratic rule and reduces democracy to a sum-zero game where the losers are entirely locked out. In India, the Opposition parties have been rendered powerless by the ruling government’s manipulation of parliamentary procedures. Such a change in the status quo could help empower Opposition parties without significantly diluting the electoral success of the ruling coalition.

Our suggestion is a small way to get the dice rolling on rethinking democracy’s structure and processes. Changes such as the one suggested above while arduous to implement, can, in the long run, enable better parliamentary deliberation and representation.

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