All decisions in Parliament are taken by voting by MPs, whether it relates to extending working hours or passing a Bill. Last week, Speaker Om Birla presided over the first recorded vote in the 17th Lok Sabha. MPs needed to decide whether to allow the introduction of the triple talaq Bill; Minister for Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad wanted permission of the House to introduce the Bill while N K Premachandran (RSP), Shashi Tharoor (Congress) and Asaduddin Owaisi (AIMIM) were opposed to its introduction.
Voice vote & division
Voice voting is the preferred method of decision making by Indian Parliament. MPs in favour of a decision call out “Ayes” and those opposed say “Noes”. The Speaker then takes a call on which voices were louder and conveys the decision of the House. The rules of procedure of Lok Sabha do not mandate recording of votes of MPs for every decision taken. Voice voting does not reveal the individual positions taken by MPs.
That is not, however, the only way voting takes place. MPs also have the right to ask for the vote of every MP to be recorded. This is called a division. MPs can vote in favour, oppose or abstain from the vote. Recording of votes is also mandated when there is a constitutional requirement for a special majority of Parliament (for example a constitutional amendment), or after a no-confidence motion. However, MPs do not exercise their right for asking for recoding of votes very frequently. In each of the last three Lok Sabhas, there have been less than 50 occasions when votes of MPs have been recorded.
Last week, Owaisi exercised his right and called for a division on the introduction of the triple talaq Bill. Lok Sabha decided to allow the introduction with 185 votes in favour and 74 opposed; 6 MPs abstained from the vote. As the seating plan for Lok Sabha was not finalised, the voting was done by paper voting slips. MPs signed their names on green paper slips to record that they were in favour, red slips to record opposition and yellow to declare that they were abstaining.
The first recorded vote (division) in Lok Sabha took place on the second day of its sitting in 1952. The House had to decide on the election of the Speaker. In the running were G V Mavalankar and S S More. Mavalankar won with 394 votes in his favour. Voting records indicate that one of the votes cast in favour of Mavalankar was that of More, who voted for his opponent upholding the best traditions of parliamentary democracy. The division took place by counting of voting slips signed by MPs and took some time.
Manual & electronic
The manual process of voting was inefficient and consumed a lot of time of the legislature. The West Bengal Legislative Assembly was the first to tackle this problem, by installing an electronic vote recording machine. The Speaker held the controls to the entire process, and the results were visible almost instantaneously on a display board. The system required 17 km of lead-covered cabling and 19,500 junction points.
In 1957, at the beginning of the second Lok Sabha, Parliament adopted a similar electronic vote counting system. Because of the proximity in the seating of MPs in Parliament, the system was designed in such a way that MPs had to use both their hands while voting. The idea being that MPs should not be able to press the voting buttons of their colleagues who might not be present for the vote.
In May 1957, the system was put into use for the first time. A demonstration of the new system took place after the swearing-in of MPs on the first day. Five days later, amendments were moved to the motion of thanks to the President’s address (delivered by Dr Rajendra Prasad), and a division was called on them.
Before the new voting machine could be put to use, a problem was highlighted to the Speaker. One of the MPs was differently-abled and had only one hand, and the machine required use of both hands. The solution provided by the Speaker was that an officer of the House would help the MP vote. In this instance, much to Speaker’s displeasure, rather than wait for the officer’s assistance, fellow legislators helped the MP cast his vote.
In most mature democracies, recorded voting is the preferred mechanism for decision making by Parliament. In India, the anti-defection law has led to limiting the use of recorded voting in Parliament.
(The writer is with PRS Legislative Research)