Referees for football. Umpires for cricket. Presiding officers for Parliament? No. That’s not how it works. Not at all.
The Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha are elected. In the Lok Sabha, the members get to elect the Presiding Officer. In the Upper House, the elected Vice-President of the country becomes the Chairman. And in both cases, it is the majority party that gets to choose the Presiding officers.
Whether it’s speaking in the Parliament or writing an article, the Members of Parliament(MP) exercise restraint when commenting on the roles of the Presiding Officers of both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
In that spirit, this piece does not attempt to be a personal report card about their performance. Instead, let me try and share an overall feel of what parliamentarians expect from the two gentlemen who occupy these high offices. When it comes to conducting proceedings in the chambers of both Houses, they hold the ignition key.
Giving ‘A Chance To Speak’ Among Presiding Officers’ Key Roles
The challenges are many. From requests for speaking made by the members to tackling interruptions, from Points of Order to decisions based on rules and precedents. All this needs to be done without trying to take the shortcut of adjournment of proceedings.
One of the big challenges for the Presiding Officer is to give all members time to express themselves. An MP who is the sole member of his or her party in the House must get a chance to speak, and making that happen in the limited days and hours that Parliament effectively functions, is a tough ask.
At present, there are about two dozen parties that have only one representative in Parliament with each one of them expecting an opportunity to participate. So the Chair would have to find ways to ensure this happens without clipping time assigned for the larger parties.
The Presiding Officers have the power to bring out the basic flavour of either House even while abiding by the Rule book. If a contentious issue is scheduled in the day’s business, they have the prerogative to unfurl the proceedings according to their will.
When Opposition’s Die-Hard Resolve Drove Parliament Towards Finding Solutions
As a member of the second largest Opposition party in the Parliament, I can only remind them to follow the mantra: ‘The Opposition must have their say, even though the Government will have its way.’
In the 2022 Monsoon Session, 43 hours were lost in disruption over 12 days because the government refused to discuss the price rise. The Opposition had to resort to a continuous dharna outside the Parliament at the foot of the Gandhi statue. The tactic worked, and the price rise was eventually discussed.
This Winter Session, the government seemed to have learnt a minor lesson from its hotch-potch handling of that earlier beleaguered session. The session that concluded on Friday (again cut short for the eighth consecutive time) was a touch better at least on one count— the Government allowed MPs from the Opposition to speak at length during the discussion on demands for grants (Appropriation Bills No 4 & 5 of 2022) – 12 hours in the Lok Sabha and eight hours in the Rajya Sabha.
(You can decide who you want to give the credit for this to— the Modi government or the new Chairman of Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha Speaker! )
The Government knew very well that, in reality, the Opposition would convert the debate into a politico-economic discussion. Yet, the Presiding Officers allowed a full-fledged discussion. The opposition party members across the board, let their steam out and slammed the government on the nation’s highest platform for deliberation.
Presiding Officer as a Mood-Setter..
The new Chairman of the Rajya Sabha has introduced an ‘Open House’ every morning between 10 and 10.50 am when MPs from all parties can meet him to place a point, make a request or draw attention to an issue listed in the day’s proceedings.
Interestingly, the former Chairman of Rajya Sabha Hamid Ansari did this too, with senior members over a quick coffee every morning. It is too early to judge whether the current meetings will result in meaningful, positive outcomes on the floor of the House. The floor of the Parliament is what eventually matters.
A Presiding Officer plays a huge role in setting the tone for the proceedings. Humour and wit from the Chair in a positive, cheerful atmosphere while serious business is being conducted, often works. A very recent example is when the Chair interrupted my speech on the Appropriation Bills with a smile to say I was referring to “Our beloved Bengal” and not “My beloved Bengal”.
His predecessors Hamid Ansari, a former diplomat, and Venkaiah Naidu, a political heavyweight before he was elected Vice President of India, cracked many a joke from the Chair. Off-the-cuff comments can, however, sometimes backfire. There's a thin line that needs to be drawn to maintain political decorum.
There are many issues that need to be addressed to strengthen this great institution. But the real test in the new year for both the Presiding Officers will be if they can work towards significantly improving the performance of the Parliament in three specific areas of legislation:
The number of Bills going for scrutiny must go up. Scrutiny of Bills went down to 13% in the 17th Lok Sabha, from a healthy 60% in the 14th Lok Sabha in 2004-09.
The time allotted for the discussion of Bills has to significantly increase. In the last Monsoon Session, 27 Bills were passed with an average discussion time of just 10 minutes per Bill!
Out of every 10 Bills being passed now, almost four are Ordinances. In the first 30 years after Independence, one out of every ten Bills passed was an Ordinance. Then two out of 10 in the next 30 years. The current track record is unacceptable.
History will be kind to the two current custodians of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, if they can get these numbers to improve. Our New Year greetings to them with the wish: Sirs, please make this happen.
(Derek O’Brien is a Member of Parliament and the Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader in the Rajya Sabha.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)