In pushing the bills through, the Deputy Chairman Harivansh was acting not only in contravention of the settled rules of procedure, but also against the very raison d’etre of the Upper House of the Indian Parliament. And thus against the very fundamentals of constitutional democracy in India.
Two of the three contentious farm bills — the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, and the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 — were declared passed by a voice vote in the Rajya Sabha on September 20, 2020 allegedly without proper voting despite a vociferous demand by the Opposition for a formal voting and counting by division of votes as per the rules, the demand for which was summarily rejected by Deputy Chairman Harivansh, which resulted in a no-confidence motion against the Deputy Chairman for violating parliamentary procedures and illegally ignoring the demand for a proper vote.
Jairam Ramesh, Chief Whip of Congress in Rajya Sabha questioned the “dictatorial attitude of the Chair in not wanting to get a sense of the House” and wondered at “whose orders” did the Deputy Chairman display “the tearing urgency” in passing the bills? Derek O’Brien, Parliamentary party floor leader of Trinamool Congress Party, pointed out that “the Opposition wanted a vote on the farmers Bills and the BJP did not want to vote because it did not have numbers.”
Therefore, the question is, if there was no vote count and it is unknown exactly how many voted in favour and against the bills, how could the bills be deemed passed? The other question is, if a substantive procedural rule relating to voting is violated, isn’t the exercise of voting itself irredeemably vitiated?
Breach of Substantive Procedural Rules Makes Validity Questionable
A minor procedural anomaly might make no difference to the legal standing of a vote, and might be even ignored, but when the count itself is under challenge, how can the vote remain above board, given that the exercise of voting constitutes only the expression of support and opposition followed by a count of the two with the larger count determining the fate of the proposal (in this case the bills)?
The mechanism of voting in Rajya Sabha, which is as serious and of as far-reaching consequences as any parliamentary procedure can conceivably be, is governed by elaborate rules under the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States, which clearly dictate that a voice vote under challenge must be put through a formal vote count. The Rules pertaining to vote count are aimed at ensuring that there is no confusion about the actual number of votes cast for and against a bill, especially when the House is divided. Furthermore, the Rules take particular care that the members of the House are satisfied with the vote count.
Watch: How the Farm Bills episode unfolded in Rajya Sabha, the Elder House of the Indian Parliament
Rule 252 provides for the voice vote by the Chairman, but sub-rule (3) sub-rule (4) of the Rule dictate unambiguously that “if the opinion of the Chairman as to the decision of a question is challenged and he does not take the course provided for in sub- rule (3) he shall order a ‘Division’ to be held,” and the two methods provided for the Chairman to choose between are voting by “operating the automatic vote recorder or by the members going into the Lobbies,” but making the choice is not optional.
Rule 253 and Rule 254 govern Division by automatic vote recorder and Division by going into Lobbies respectively, and under both the Rules, there are provisions for the members to have the recording of their votes corrected before the result of the division is announced, if they make an error in voting, which demonstrates that the entire exercise is to be carried out patiently and diligently. But in case of the farm bills, let alone patiently and diligently, the vote count was not even taken legally in the Rajya Sabha.
There is no doubt that once the opinion of the Chairman about the outcome of a vote count is challenged, the Chairman has no option but to go for a formal vote count, which Deputy Chairman Harivansh refused to do in clear violation of binding procedural rules. If the House was not in order, or the voting or counting was not practicable for some reason, the House could have been adjourned to the next working day, or later. Why was the Deputy Chairman in such a hurry to have the bills passed?
The Very Purpose of the Rajya Sabha Stands Defeated
The Rajya Sabha, being the deliberative House of the Parliament, is a forum for calm and composed debates away from the populist sentiments that might hold sway in the Lok Sabha, the latter being the House of the People, and thus susceptible to the passing whims and passions of the time. Therefore, it is ridiculous to even suggest that the Rajya Sabha should go on rubber-stamping the bills passed by the Lok Sabha in deference to the supposed “will of the people” expressed through the elected members of the Lower House. While the House of the People may express popular opinion, the Council of States is the voice of reason, and its appointed role is to bring cold reason to fervent demands of the electorate, and cut the proposed measures to the right size and shape as dedicated by reason, if possible; else, to freeze them to death — a far better alternative to a hasty, ill-advised legislation that could potentially create more problems than it might solve.
Therefore, in pushing the bills through the Rajya Sabha, Deputy Chairman Harivansh was acting not only in contravention of the settled rules of procedure, but also against the very raison d’etre of the Rajya Sabha, and was thus acting against the very fundamentals of constitutional democracy in India. And if striking at the roots of Indian democracy is not an offense meriting immediate removal from office, what is? However, the no-confidence motion brought against Mr. Harivansh was rejected by Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu on technical grounds, and on the same day eight Members of Parliament were suspended for unruly behaviour.
Speaking of Chairman Venkaiah Naidu, not very long ago (as recently as May 12, 2020, in fact), Mr. Naidu wrote in The Hindu about the role of the Upper House in India’s bicameral legislature, saying that the House of the People “elected directly by the people is susceptible to passions of the moment and electoral considerations. Their imprint on legislation needs to be checked by the second chamber whose members are expected to be sober, wise and well-informed with domain knowledge,” and “the mandate of the Rajya Sabha” was “to revise or delay legislation without proving a clog in the wheel of the progress; to represent the interests of the States as a federal chamber; and be a deliberative body holding high-quality debates on important issues.”
Surely, Chairman Naidu, with such clear understanding of the purpose and mandate of the Rajya Sabha, cannot possibly see the haste of the Deputy Chairman Harivansh in getting the farm bills passed and his acting in breach of the procedural rules for the purpose as consistent with the mandate of the Rajya Sabha, or with the overarching principles of constitutional democracy in India.
What is even more laughable is the infantile defense that the members of the House were not demanding the “division” from their seats as required by the rules of procedure and the House was not in order. Again, what was the hurry if the House was not in order? Why couldn’t the farm bills wait for the House to come back in order? To not let a contentious bill pass is one of the primary functions of the Rajya Sabha. So if the Council was not letting the bills pass without proper debate and adequate consensus on key issues, it was answering its purpose.
Now, say, the members were not demanding the “division” from their seats, as required and the House was not in order, and still the “division” had been ordered by the Deputy Chairman regardless, what grave consequences could have followed? None, actually. A procedural irregularity of such insignificance could have absolutely no impact on the proceedings. In fact, who would even so much as bother about it except perhaps the worst of the gossipy nitpickers?
Interestingly, having ignored the clearly worded, mandatory rules of procedure, the Deputy Chairman pleads in his defense for ignoring the rules a factually disputed, minor infraction by the agitated members of the Council. Seriously? What’s that Hindi proverb about 900 rats and a cat and the Haj, again please?