It is rather sad that more than 75 years after India’s independence, the neutrality and impartiality of the presiding officers of both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha are under close scrutiny.
MAHATMA Gandhi wrote an article titled ‘Speakers and Politics’ in the Harijan on July 17, 1938. In it he made some illuminating and thoughtful observations. He wrote: “… [T]he speaker’s position assumes very high importance, greater than that of the Prime Minister. For he has to discharge the functions of a judge while he occupies the chair. He has to give impartial and just rulings. He has to enforce decorum and laws of courtesy between members. He has to be calm in the midst of storms. He has opportunities of winning over opponents which no other member of the house can possibly have”.
Gandhi’s vision on speaker’s functioning negated
Eighty-five years after Gandhi’s profound articulation that the speaker’s position is higher than that of the Prime Minister and they have to function impartially like a judge, the nation is witnessing the ruthless negation of his vision.
Some newspapers in their editorials are flagging the partisan manner in which presiding officers of the Parliament are discharging their duties. The Indian Express and The Hindu in their editorials of February 22 made comments which disapproved of the recent role of the Vice-President, Jagdeep Dhankhar in dealing with some opposition leaders while conducting the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha during the discussion on motion of thanks on the President’s address.
Why the criticism?
Normally, presiding officers of the legislatures are not subjected to criticism, and, therefore, such editorials sharply questioning the presiding officers of our apex legislature is unusual and indicative of the sad state of affairs concerning our parliamentary democracy, the defining feature of which is accountability of the government to the legislature. They are facing adverse commentary for their decision to expunge some opposition leaders’ remarks concerning Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s relationship with billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani from their speeches delivered in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha while participating in the discussion on motion of thanks on the President’s remarks.
Also read: Expunging words from speeches of opposition leaders should not compromise accountability of government to legislature
The Indian Express editorial directly hit out at Dhankhar and sharply observed, “By engaging in what looks like a partisan political exercise against the Opposition, VP Dhankar undermines the Parliament, his office.” These severe and strident remarks were made on account of Dhankhar’s decision to direct the Committee of Privileges of the Rajya Sabha to probe alleged violation of privileges by nine Indian National Congress members of the Parliament (MPs) who by shouting slogans disrupted the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha. The editorial also flagged the point that Dhankhar expunged some paragraphs of the Leader of Opposition and Congress President M. Mallikarjun Kharge’s speech demanding the establishment of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to probe the explosive allegations made by investment research firm Hindenburg Research LLC against the multinational conglomerate Adani Group.
Apart from directing to investigate the conduct of nine Congress MPs, Dhankar ordered to investigate the breach of privilege by three Aam Aadmi Party MPs for submitting identical notices day after day under Rule 267 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), seeking suspension of all business to discuss the Adani affair, ignoring the previous day’s directions of the chair rejecting those notices.
It is worthwhile to quote from the Hindu editorial titled ‘Discipline and discussion: … Parliament is the forum where the government is answerable to the people.’ Referring to the recent decision of the Chairman, Rajya Sabha, and Speaker, Lok Sabha, to remove portions of the speeches of Kharge and Rahul Gandhi made in the House on the Adani issue, it searchingly observed, “Parliament is the platform where the Opposition has the responsibility to ask questions of the government, which the Council of Ministers has the responsibility to answer. There are parliamentary rules and norms that have evolved over time to achieve this objective. It will be a travesty of parliamentary democracy if the Opposition is penalised for seeking accountability from the government, which in turn is allowed to hide behind rules and obfuscate the issue.”
Normally, presiding officers of the legislatures are not subjected to criticism. Therefore, such sharp questioning of the presiding officers of our apex legislature is unusual and indicative of the sad state of affairs concerning our parliamentary democracy, the defining feature of which is accountability of the government to the legislature.
Both the editorials suggest that the role of the opposition got compromised on account of the action taken by the presiding officers of both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. The usage of the strong language in the Express editorial that Dhankhar engaged in a partisan political exercise clearly underlines the negation of the ideals of neutrality and impartiality which are central to the functioning of the presiding officer for conducting the proceedings of the Parliament. Even earlier, in 2019, the Supreme Court in Shrimanth Balasaheb Patil vs Hon’ble Speaker Karnataka very sharply observed, “…[T]he speaker, being a neutral person, is expected to act independently while conducting the proceedings of the house or adjudication of any petitions. The constitutional responsibility endowed upon him has to be scrupulously followed. His political affiliations cannot come in the way of adjudication. If the speaker is not able to disassociate from his political party and behaves contrary to the spirit of neutrality and independence, such person does not deserve to be reposed with public trust and confidence.” Very strong words indeed.
In the same judgment, the Supreme Court also noted in its operative portion that “In any case, there is a growing trend of speakers acting against the constitutional duty of being neutral.”
These observations were made in the context of speakers of our legislatures taking decisions on defection matters by compromising their neutrality as mandated by the constitution. These hold good in all situations and particularly in the context of their functioning for conducting the proceedings of the legislatures.
The essence of the observation of the Supreme Court that “..there is a growing trend of speakers acting against the constitutional duty of being neutral” resonate in the aforementioned two editorials which drive home the point that the opposition is penalised for its acts of commission and omission in both the Houses of Parliament by the respective presiding officers because of their role which annuls their neutrality. Such interrogations of their neutrality and impartiality indicate the ills plaguing our democracy.
It is rather sad that when the country is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its independence, the neutrality and impartiality of the presiding officers of both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha are under close scrutiny.
Mahatma Gandhi’s aforementioned observations made in 1938 — that the speaker’s position assumes importance greater than that of the Prime Minister and they have to discharge their functions like a judge for giving just rulings — constitute the gold standard of neutrality and fair play on the part of presiding officers. Applying that gold standard to the role played by the incumbent Chairman, Rajya Sabha and Speaker, Lok Sabha, one would only feel disheartened by the extent to which that vision of Gandhi has been trampled upon, of late.
Rajya Sabha secretariat publication on the Leader of Opposition
It is instructive to refer to the 2022 publication of Rajya Secretariat titled Role of the Leader of the House, Leader of the Opposition and Whips. It quotes the following from British lawyer and academic Ivor Jennings’s book Cabinet Government (1969): “Attacks upon the government and individual ministers are the functions of the Opposition. The duty of the Opposition is to oppose. That duty is the major check upon corruption and defective administration. It is also the means by which individual injustices are prevented. This duty is hardly less important than that of the government.”
It is important to salvage the dignity, impartiality and neutrality of the office of the Chairman, Rajya Sabha and Speaker, Lok Sabha so that the government’s accountability to the legislature is ensured wholly and in full measure.
It also notes, “The apparent absurdity that the Opposition asks for parliamentary time to be set aside by the government in order that the Opposition may censure the government, is not an absurdity at all.” It proceeds to further add, “It is the recognition by both sides of the House that the government governs openly and honestly and that it is prepared to meet criticism not by secret police and concentration camps but by rational argument.”
Where is the “rational argument” when portions of the speeches of opposition leaders are expunged and the law concerning violation of privileges of the Parliament are invoked for what the opposition did in the House?
The same publication of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat observed that the Leader of the Opposition “…among other things, watches for encroachments on the rights of minorities and demands debates when the government is trying to slip away without parliamentary criticism.” How is such an observation of a publication of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat compatible with the deletions of what Kharge said in the House for establishing a JPC and Dhankhar’s insistence that Kharge should authenticate what he was saying in the House? The Express editorial bluntly observed, “The recent actions by…Dhankhar vis a vis opposition MPs seem to indicate a desire to sanitise at best, and censor at worst, debate and discussion when it seems to go against the government of the day.”
Also read: Deleting democracy: Need for limiting Speaker’s power of expunction
Shining example of a presiding officer from pre-independence
In 1925, when legislator and political leader Vithalbhai Patel became the first elected President (speaker) of the Central Legislative Assembly (the lower house of the Imperial Legislative Council, the legislature of British India), he so impartially took decisions and gave rulings that he antagonised the bureaucracy and the British Viceroy. It was described that there was “Patel Raj in Delhi”, and that Patel “filled [his] position both with regard to dignity and knowledge in a manner unsurpassed by any other man whoever held similar position [sic] anywhere in the world. In that sense and in his person, Mr. Patel was a tribute to any future Indian Parliament.”
More than seventy five years after India’s independence, it is important to recall that spirit, and salvage the dignity, impartiality and neutrality of the office of the Chairman, Rajya Sabha and Speaker, Lok Sabha so that the government’s accountability to the legislature is ensured wholly and in full measure.