It required an unknown headline-writer in the Kolkata newspaper, The Telegraph, to explain in six words what transpired on 20 September: 'Voice nails farm bills, democracy speechless.'
Watching the House proceedings on Sunday, it was evident that the Treasury Benches had thought through the likely turn of events and prepared accordingly. In contrast, the Opposition was hamstrung by little anticipation and almost zero coordination between floor leaders of the parties.
As a result, the scenes turned chaotic and left the Opposition open to the charge of being unruly and giving a handle to the BJP to mount a publicity campaign against projecting itself as redeemer of farmers while depicting the opposition as those blocking their progress.
On this day, the government, with more than able compliance of recently re-elected Deputy Chairperson, Harivansh Narayan Singh, paradoxically a former-journalist, steamrollered through the Rajya Sabha, the two contentious agriculture related Bills, the Farmers' and Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020.
How the Farm Bills Got Passed in the House
The 'voice' that the sans-byline scribe suggested was used to silence democracy, was a reference to the practice of voice vote. This procedure is listed in parliamentary rule books as one of the two processes by which the House reaches a decision that requires to be taken after debate or discussion. This power of choosing which of the two routes are appropriate, solely vests with the Chair.
Opposition parties were outraged at the Deputy Chairperson's choice despite the obviousness of robust sentiment in the House in favour of the Bill being referred to a Select Committee. This was amply evident as representatives of several parties like the Shiromani Akali Dal, part of the government till recently, alongside the Biju Janata Dal and the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi, which at times voted with the government, joined the chorus of opposition against the three farm Bills.
Instead of acquiescing to repeated Opposition demands for Division in the House, Harivansh announced passage of the two Bills by voice vote route despite the impossibility of discrerning between ‘Ayes’ and ‘Nos’.
The government quickly mounted a counter-offensive by getting Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to address a press conference while flanked by five cabinet colleagues.
In an instance of the pot calling the kettle black, he accused opposition members of indulging in shameful behaviour. Yet, questions remain over the Deputy Chairperson's decision not to accept the demand for Division to ascertain if the government had the numbers on its side or not. Such a decision may have prevented the avoidable scenes on Sunday. However, that option was not chosen at the prodding of the Treasury Bench, possibly because it was either short or uncertain of its numbers.
Presiding Officers’ Long History of Siding with the Ruling Party
This is not the first time that the presiding officer has sung to the tune of the government. It certainly would not be the last such incident. On August 10, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government in Manipur 'demonstrated' its majority through a voice vote that the Speaker of the state assembly used to go by, despite the opposition Congress party demanding division. The party claimed that chief minister Biren Singh was not confident who will end up voting for whom during the trust vote.
There are numerous instances in both Houses of Parliament of the presiding officer of the time not acting neutrally to demonstrate the bipartisan character of the office. When Somnath Chatterjee was Lok Sabha Speaker, his deputy Charanjit Atwal, enabled the government agenda by ensuring passage of eight Bills in 17 minutes amid frequent disorder in the House.
Meira Kumar, too, as Speaker in February 2014 presided over the passage of the Bill creating Telangana, but not without controversy by denying Opposition demand for division.
Since instances of presiding officers not heeding opposition calls for division, going deep in history, it is time to consider change of rules to either completely do away with voice vote or restrict its use to prevent occurrence of similar controversy. This becomes all more necessary as the chair is unlikely to become non-partisan in near future given the current subversion of various state institutions.
Did Rajya Sabha Proceedings Followed Rules?
The guiding principles for procedure and conduct of the two Houses are laid out in the two rule books besides 'Rajya Sabha At Work' and of course, the masterly tome, ‘Practise and Procedure of Parliament’ that was compiled by MN Kaul and SL Shakhder in 1968 and is considered the veritable 'Bible' of parliamentary procedure. It has since been updated or revised several times with the seventh revised edition in 2016 being the latest.
Kaul and Shakhder specify that after the debate on a motion concludes, the presiding officer asks the oft-heard question—those in favour may say 'Aye' and those against the motion may say 'No'. The Speaker or the Rajya Sabha Chairman (or Deputy Chairman) can thereafter announce the result base on personal judgement on which chorus is louder.
In this manual it is specified: “Questions are generally decided by voice vote unless the opinion of the Speaker is challenged by members and they demand a division, in which case the Speaker orders a division”.
‘Rajya Sabha at Work’ further states clearly that even if "the minority or any individual member challenges his decision, he directs the lobby to be cleared."
On Sunday, this demand was made by more than one member and procedurally the Deputy Chairman should have acceded to the request. He did not.
Why Can’t Rules be Altered to Minimise Misuse?
The practice of voice vote enables hastening the decision making process as division is a time-consuming process. While there may be an argument that doing away with this practice may not be very practical because several routine motions have to passed, but there is nothing preventing the Rules Committees of the two houses on deliberating ways to reduce the Chair's subjectivity and routinely go in for division whenever there is a difference of opinion, howsoever minuscule, in the two Houses.
The two Committees can lay down guidelines specifying when it is obligatory for the Chair to opt for division. Since every party has been at the receiving end of misuse of voice vote, none of them should object.
The Lok Sabha Rules Committee has fourteen members besides the Speaker—eight from BJP and one each from Congress, BSP, TDP, YSR Congress, JD(U) and CPI. The Rules Committee of the Upper House also comprises 15 members including the Chairman and Vice President—four from the BJP, two from JD(U) and one each from TRS, AIADMK, CPM, SAD, an independent member and one nominated.
Furthermore, there must be a procedural recourse in the event of the any member being of the view that the Chair acted in a partisan way to ensure passage of the government’s motion. In parliamentary democracy, there must be avenues to redressal.
The practice of voice vote has a long history dating to the time of ancient Greeks. In the Spartan Council of Elders, Gerousia, there was a practice of voting by shouting. But in that case, the evaluators ranked candidates by the volume of applause when they were produced. The 'evaluators' however, were seated separately so they could not see the candidates, only 'hear' the noise.
Unlike the ancient Greeks, the person deciding what procedure to adopt in the Indian Parliament, is also the master of ceremony with untrammelled power. It is time that this was changed and voice vote must no longer be allowed to act as a sledgehammer to ram through an institution whose bipartisan character must be safeguarded.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)