The Lok Sabha comprises 545 individuals belonging to 36 parties and a clutch of Independents, each set having views and interests that are at variance with those of the others, with everyone eager to speak and be heard. Some are as keen to push business through as the others are determined to stall proceedings.
The House can erupt at any time, and it often does. Egos clash, and discussions at times take unforeseen turns. Tempers run high, and verbal violence is met with frequently louder and stronger countercharges. The potential for disorder is immense.
Maintaining order in the Lok Sabha is, therefore, a daunting task. The onus of conducting proceedings lies on the Speaker. And rather like the way this massive, chaotic country itself chugs along, the Houses of Parliament too function, and dispose of business.
Among the tools available to the Speaker for ensuring discipline is the power to force a member to withdraw from the House (for the remaining part of the day), or to place him under suspension. Sumitra Mahajan drew upon these powers when she suspended 25 Congress members for a total of five days last week.
Rule Number 373 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business states that in case the Speaker is of the opinion that the conduct of any member is “grossly disorderly”, he or she may direct that member to “withdraw immediately from the House”. The member is required to “do so forthwith”, and stay away from the “remainder of the day’s sitting”.
The Speaker may invoke Rule 374A in case of “grave disorder occasioned by a member coming into the well of the House or abusing the Rules of the House, persistently and wilfully obstructing its business by shouting slogans or otherwise…”. The member concerned, “on being named by the Speaker, stands automatically suspended from the service of the House for five consecutive sittings or the remainder of the session, whichever is less”.
This clause was incorporated in the Rule Book on December 5, 2001. Obviously, the intention was to skirt around the necessity of moving and adopting a motion for suspension.
While the Speaker is empowered to place a member under suspension, the authority for revocation of this order is not vested in her. It is for the House, if it so desires, to resolve on a motion to revoke the suspension.
Likewise, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha is empowered — under Rule Number 255 of its Rule Book — to “direct any member whose conduct is in his opinion grossly disorderly to withdraw immediately” from the House. “…Any member so ordered to withdraw shall do so forthwith and shall absent himself during the remainder of the day’s meeting.”
The Chairman may “name a member who disregards the authority of the Chair or abuses the rules of the Council by persistently and wilfully obstructing” business. In such a situation, the House may adopt a motion suspending the member from the service of the House for a period not exceeding the remainder of the session. The House may, however, by another motion, terminate the suspension. Unlike the Speaker, the Rajya Sabha Chairman does not have the power to suspend a member.
Mahajan is not the first Speaker to use the powers vested in her office to discipline members. Her predecessor, Meira Kumar, suspended 16 members for five days on February 13, 2014. The House had been witness to unprecedented scenes that day. L Rajagopal, an expelled Congress member, had used pepper spray in the House. A Telugu Desam member, M Venugopala Reddy, had smashed a mike. The suspended members belonged to the Congress, Telugu Desam and YSR Congress.
On March 15, 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, as many as 63 members were suspended from the Lok Sabha for three days.
On April 24, 2012, eight members were suspended for four days. On August 23, 2013, 12 members were suspended for five days. On September 2, 2014, nine members were suspended for five days.
But is drastic action by the presiding officer the right way to deal with grave disorder in the House?
While enforcement of the supreme authority of the Speaker is essential for smooth conduct of proceedings, it must be remembered that her job is to run the House, not lord over it. The solution, therefore, has to be long-term, consistent with democratic values, and a changing India. Mahajan has taken one step forward by ordering television cameras to focus on demonstrating members. Let people watch their representatives and make up their minds on whether this is what they expect of them.
The second step should be to discontinue the current practice of herding people out of the visitors’ gallery the moment the House witnesses chaos. It may be a good idea to reserve a few blocks in the gallery for schoolchildren, and to keep them packed to capacity every day. A 13-year-old schoolchild will become a voter after five years — let these future voters see their netas in action, live, and make up their minds on whether they would want to vote for them.