The Rajya Sabha has been functioning for 67 years. During this time, governance has become complicated and the subjects of laws more technical. But the rules governing the functioning of the Rajya Sabha have not kept pace with the times. Earlier this month, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu appointed a two-member committee to make recommendations for revising the rules of the Upper House. V K Agnihotri, former secretary general of the House, is heading the committee. Media reports suggest that the committee is mandated to submit its report in three months. The reports also indicate that the committee may give some of its recommendations before the monsoon session of Parliament.
Both Houses of Parliament have their own rules of procedure. These rules govern every detail of how the Houses function on a daily basis. They determine MPs’ participation in parliamentary proceedings while making laws, passing budgets, questioning the government and representing us. These rules are the bulwark of our parliamentary democracy. For Parliament to be effective in its role, these rules require regular updating and strengthening. The Constitution, through Article 118(1), gives the two Houses of Parliament the power to make rules to regulate their functioning.
When the Rajya Sabha met for the first time on May 13, 1952, it did not have any rules of its own. Article 118(2) of the Constitution provided an interim mechanism for rules. Under this article, the chairman of Rajya Sabha had the power to modify and adopt rules that were in place before the commencement of the Constitution. In 1952, these were the rules of the Constituent Assembly, the body which had framed the Constitution. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the first chairman of Rajya Sabha, amended these to be used as the rules of procedure.
So, the initial version of rules came into force three days after the first sitting of the House. Among other things, they provided for Question Hour in the style of the House of Lords. Ministers had to answer questions two days a week and three oral questions a day. The rules also created a committee of 15 MPs to suggest any change. Based on this committee’s recommendation, the initial rules were amended four more times until the end of 1952.
But it was not until 1964 that the Rajya Sabha made its own rules under Article 118(1). And it is the 1964 rules that have been amended over the years and currently govern the functioning of the Upper House. However, these rules were not made from the ground up. The old framework of 1952 was used as a base and supplemented. In some cases, the provisions were merely carried forward and continue to exist even today. For example, the 1952 Rajya Sabha rules to discipline disorderly MPs are the same ones as now.
The Agnihotri committee has been set up at a time when the two Houses of Parliament are facing similar structural challenges. So its recommendations, while meant for the Rajya Sabha, will also influence rule-making for the Lok Sabha. Four fundamental issues would require the committee’s attention.
First, it seems that the two Houses of Parliament meet mostly for transacting government business. The committee will have to balance completion of government business with discussions raised by other political parties. Second, the existing mechanisms (like Question Hour) for securing the government’s accountability to Parliament have lost their edge. The committee will have to suggest measures for completely overhauling these mechanisms. Third, issues facing Parliament are now more complex and technical than ever. In such an environment, the committee’s suggestions for strengthening deliberations in the House will be crucial. Finally, the disruption of parliamentary proceedings has become a routine affair. The committee will have the difficult task of suggesting solutions for protecting the sanctity of parliamentary proceedings.
There should be a periodic review of the rules of procedure of both Houses. The last such review for the Rajya Sabha happened in 2009, incidentally when Agnihotri was its secretary general. Nine years later, his committee again has the critical task of going beyond the symptoms of dysfunction and recommending changes to strengthen Rajya Sabha.