25 Sep 2017 (https://scroll.in/tag/parliamentary-panels)
By Dr. Narmadeshwar Prasad [Director, Parliamentary & Administrative Research Institute (PARI)]
According to recent media reports, the Congress has lost the chairmanship of a key parliamentary panel in the Rajya Sabha. If true, this is not good parliamentary practice and certainly is not a good sign for India’s democracy.
A report in the Hindu on September 21 said that the Congress had lost the chairmanship of the standing committee on personnel, law and justice, which was headed by Anand Sharma. It said that Sharma is likely to be replaced by the BJP’s Bhupender Yadav and that a formal order was expected soon.
Parliamentary committees assist the legislature in discharging its duties by regulating its functions effectively. They are expected to function in a non-partisan manner. They review bills that may be referred to them as well as policies and budgets in order to influence, advise, scrutinise and ensure accountability. Their recommendations are not binding on the government.
The chairmanship of Parliamentary committees is decided on the basis of the strength of each political party in the House. There is a set procedure for this. There are 245 members in the Rajya Sabha today. For allocation, 13 main committees are usually taken into consideration. These include eight department-related committees, four standing committees and the house committee.
Dividing the total number of Rajya Sabha members with 13 (the number of committees counted) throws up the rounded-off figure of 19. This is the number of members a political party would require to get chairmanship of one committee. However, the Bahujan Samaj Party with five Rajya Sabha members holds chairmanship of the assurances committee, and, according to the Hindu report, the Shiromani Akali Dal is set to get chairmanship of a committee despite only having three MPs in the Upper House.
One of the justifications of the move to divest the Congress of the chairmanship of a committee is that the party has been losing seats in the Rajya Sabha. However, after Manohar Parikkar resigned as defence minister in March to take over as Goa chief minister and surrendered his membership of the Upper House in September, the Congress is still the largest party in the Rajya Sabha with 57 MPs against the BJP’s 56.
As of today, out of 13 Parliamentary committees, the BJP holds chairmanship of five. These are committees on house, petitions, papers laid on the table, human resource development, and commerce. By contrast, the Congress chairs only four committees – subordinate legislation, home affairs, science and technology, and personnel, public grievances, law and justice. Considering that both parties have a near similar strength in the Rajya Sabha, why does the BJP have more committees than the Congress?
Electoral reforms The standing committee on personnel, law and justice was in the midst of finalising a report on electoral reforms, specifically regarding the current first-past-the-post system of elections vs proportional representation. In August, this committee sent a questionnaire on electoral reforms to all political parties and the Election Commission, seeking opinions on whether election systems other than the one currently used in India can be considered.
It highlighted concerns that the first-past-the-post system may not be the best, given the results of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in March, in which the Bharatiya Janata Party won 312 of the 403 seats (or 77.4% of the seats) despite getting 39.7% of the vote share. In contrast, the Samajwadi Party won 11.7% seats with 21.8% of votes, and the BSP only 4.7% seats despite bagging 22.2% of votes.
Tenures of committees
The media has indicated that one reason the Congress is protesting against being divested of a committee is because Anand Sharma has not yet finished the work he started on that panel. According to the rulebook, this is not a valid argument. However, this draws attention to the issue of the tenure of parliamentary committees.
As per the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), parliamentary committees have a tenure of one year. However, this timeframe is strictly adhered to only with respect to department-related committees – those that cover various ministries or departments of the Union government. Other standing committees, such as those on petitions, assurances, subordinate legislation and ethics, continue till they are reconstituted. This could take between one and three years. It is beyond comprehension why diverse yardsticks apply to different committees.
Further, in Chapter 22 of the Rules of Procedure, Clause 269 (3) says: “A member of a Committee shall hold office for a term not exceeding one year.” This can lead to an interpretation that the committee can remain functional to maintain continuity, while its members may be rotated.
But in reality, department-related committees become dysfunctional as soon as they complete a year, bringing all business to a grinding halt. Since, by convention, the new committee is not bound to carry on the unfinished work of the previous committeee, it results in a huge waste of the country’s resources.
One year is indeed too short. In the past, by the end of a year, several committees have been unable to complete the work they have taken up. This should not happen.
Each committee handles issues of national importance. Besides electoral reforms, committees are involved in other pertinent issues such as climate change and air pollution. However, they are often unable to complete their work because of time limitations. Our parliamentary procedures must be revisited so that tenures of these committees can be extended in order to bring their work to a fruitful culmination.
Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu, who appoints the heads of Rajya Sabha committees, does not deserve to be dragged into unsavory controversy. The committees are supposed to be non-partisan instruments, and the chairman of the Rajya Sabha must display exemplary non-partisanship.
Narmadeshwar Prasad is the former additional director of the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.