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The role of the Vice-President of India in conducting the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) as its ex-officio Chairman often gets mired in controversies and allegations ranging from partisan political exercise against the opposition to being the “cheerleader” of the government.
A recent incrimination erupted on 21 February 2023 when the chairman expunged six portions of the speech of the Leader of the Opposition concerning the alleged corrupt practices of the Adani conglomerate. The Chairman also directed the Committee of Privilege of the Rajya Sabha to investigate the breach of privilege against nine Congress and three AAP Mps. The accusations of holding the government brief or rescuing the government in difficult situations against the Chairman of RS cut across the party spectrum and timelines. On 20 December 2011, the Chairman abruptly adjourned RS at the stroke of midnight, when the debate on the Jan Lokpal Bill was underway and voting was about to start. And the deferral effectively killed the Bill for the moment.
”The reckoning of Gandhi, Nehru and others that the presiding officers of legislature would act like neutral judges has come a cropper, particularly since the 1960s. The Supreme Court has repeatedly highlighted the trends of presiding officers acting against the constitutional duty of being neutral and even urged Parliament to pull up its socks. The effacing apolitical sheen vindicates the prophecy of H V Kamath, “The Speaker is almost always a party man … Speaker who is a member of the party in power cannot be expected to be impartial and of complete integrity”.
When insinuations such as political bias, muzzling the voice of the opposition or pursuing the doctrine of differential rights shroud the role of the RS Chairman, the dignity and stature of the second ranked post in the constitutional hierarchy take a considerable beating. The gut issue, therefore, is whether introspective attention has been directed to the impending legal and political consequences of the elliptic dictum. Indicatively, the Draft Constitution articles relating to the Chairman and the Deputy Chairman were adopted in the Constituent Assembly without reflective attention to the looming ramifications of “ex-officio chairman”, as if it were apodictic.
The only addition through amendment was to debar the presiding officers from chairing the sittings in which resolutions for their removal would be considered. The general consensus was on the indispensability of the stand-in for the President (and chairmanship for some vibrancy) barring the initial scepticism of B N Rau, who underlined that it would be inappropriate to make the VP the ex-officio chairman considering the VP is the choice of both Houses of Parliament sitting together. Rau also contended that in an executive of the parliamentary type, there is hardly any room for a VP between the President and the Prime Minister and the “best course” would be to replicate the “Irish plan of a Commission”.
However, given the infrequent actual occasions, considerable recurring cost and easy alternatives, the avowed premise of VP tends to be ambivalent, expensive and dubitable. Moreover, the embellishment of the office by carving out some functions only from RS’s exclusive domain seems neither enough nor democratic reinforcement. After all, the RS has, on average, 67 days of sitting in a year. The operationalisation of the “ex-officio chairman” stipulation evinces a few legal incompatibilities and federal as well as democratic constrictions. The emphatic attachment of the VP to the workings of the Rajya Sabha demeans the democratic credibility and federal credential of the House and the very design demands a dispassionate relook and recasting.
The VP holds the second rank in the order of precedence, but it is the only constitutional post that does not get a salary according to the designated post but only for the duties performed by virtue of presiding over the sessions of RS. Though no specific rank has been formally accorded to the Chairman of RS, Dr B R Ambedkar had explained that the position of VP was really that of the Chairman of the Council of States and that so far as his functions were concerned, they were similar to those of the Speaker of LS. Enigma unfurls when the Speaker holds a rank that is four notches below that of VP and when a higher rank holder draws a salary for performing duties of a lower rank post.
The post of VP is atypical as it combines two distinct offices and a dual capacity, a position inimitable among other constitutional positions. The office is a part of the union executive, though without any earmarked functions. Accordingly, the VP is to be kept in the loop and informed of government policies and decisions because she or he may assume the role of the President in the event of a vacancy. As ex-officio Chairman VP is the workaday element of the Union legislature, and performs both administrative and judicial functions.
The VP is empowered to adjourn the House, suspend the sitting, adjudicate on the disqualification of members, select members for different committees, determine the admissibility of the question, calling attention, amendment proposal etc. The judicial role of VP relates to the (final) interpretation of the Constitution, statutes, rules and procedures regarding the Point of Order in particular. One conceivable muddle extends to the consideration of impeachment resolution in the Rajya Sabha. The charge against the President can be leveled by either House of Parliament and the other House would then investigate the charge.
In either case, the VP is not legally barred from presiding over such proceedings. It is plausible that the VP might be interested in or might try to influence the passing of such a resolution for being the obvious beneficiary of a positive outcome. Therefore, it would be more reasonable to accredit the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to preside over such proceedings, as is the procedure in the American Senate.
Ex-officio chairmanship is anathema to the democratic tenets on which Parliament is grounded. Strangely, the RS does not have a presiding officer of its own choice or under its control. The RS can neither elect nor censure its preordained chairman. During British rule, the President and Deputy-President of the otherwise debilitated Council of States were selected from among the members by the GovernorGeneral (Government of India Act, 1919) and by the Council itself (Government of India Act, 1935).
As democratic credos demand similar procedures for every representative institution, the Rajya Sabha should have the authority to elect its presiding officers from among its members and to remove them in cases of lack of confidence. The Chairman, in practical terms, is not the choice and voice of the Rajya Sabha.
The ruling government sponsors and the Lok Sabha formally elects VP, and this is emphatically so due to numerical preponderance. The Rajya Sabha cannot push through any candidate even if all its members collectively vote for it. Thus, the VP goes on to preside without the explicit confidence of the House members. It would be fascinating if the House-wise disaggregated votes in an election were made public. The VP is not only an “outsider” but can also be one additional RS member of the ruling party by virtue of the casting vote. Though still presumptive, the deadlock-breaking vote of the Chairman is more likely to be in favour of the Treasury Benches. Such a leaning seems certain when the VP has had a connection with and sponsorship of the ruling party.
The choice may be tricky when the sponsoring party is not in power, yet the hanging sword of ouster has the potential to sway the choice of VP. If the Rajya Sabha does not own its Chairman, the VP cannot claim to represent the federating units. The elected RS members can contend, literally, to represent the states/UTs for having been elected by the state legislatures, but the VP lacks such legitimacy.
In a wider perspective, the constitutional dictum of the exofficio chairman has the potential to discredit the post per se. In a politically bursting legislature, controversies are bound to engulf the role of the presiding officers and when the incumbent happens to be Vice President, it demeans the constitutional status of the second most important person in India. Given the legal tangles and democratic diminution, the exofficio chairmanship deserves to be cast aside. At the most, the VP may remain a part of the Rajya Sabha and have a few ceremonial functions. If the existing additional functions (ex-officio Chancellor of universities) are inadequate, a few other non-controversial roles can be assigned (as in committees of sports, culture, foreign relations, and the InterState Council).
Or following the American example, the VicePresident may join hands with the President in performing ceremonial roles. The ex-officio chairman makes the slate clear for five years, but dispensing with the system would open the debate on the term of an in-house chairperson. There are several workable options to choose from. The Rajya Sabha habitually elects its Deputy Chairman for a six-year term.
The new post of the in-house Chairman can be readily included in that format. Alternatively, a two-year term may be fixed for both Chairman and Deputy Chairman, that is, after the completion of each biennial election, RS would elect them in one go. Indicatively, such a configuration would reflect the prevailing in-house political trajectory
(The writer is Associate Professor in Political Science, Tufanganj College, Cooch Behar, West Bengal)