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The custodian

Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha, as is his wont, is gentle and graceful. His chair calls on him to be firm and fair as well.

The odds have been stacked against the Indian woman scientist for a long while now.

Deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha Harivansh Narayan Singh is known to be a mild-mannered man. In his letter to the chairman of Rajya Sabha, Venkaiah Naidu, in which he put on record his decision to observe a one-day fast because of the unruly scenes in the Upper House on Sunday, he invoked the values of Gandhi, JP, Ram Manohar Lohia and Karpoori Thakur. Tuesday morning he showed up with homemade tea for the eight Opposition MPs suspended for the Sunday fracas, who were protesting their punishment by sitting overnight on dharna in the Parliament premises. The peace, or tea, offering, applauded by the Prime Minister, was indeed a graceful gesture. And yet, the question won’t go away: Why did Harivansh babu not display this generosity of spirit inside the House on Sunday? On that day, the sequence of events may have been very different if the Deputy Chairperson had showed even mere adherence to procedure — if he had allowed a division of votes when the voice vote was challenged. After all, the rule book says that in such a situation, “votes shall be taken by operating the automatic vote recorder or by members going into the lobbies”. A division of votes may be demanded when there is no consensus, and even when the outcome is predictable — for parties and members to put on record their position on a bill. But not only did the Deputy Chairperson deny a division of votes on two controversial bills, on which an important BJP ally had just withdrawn a minister, he also refused the Opposition’s demand for them to be sent to a select committee on the grounds of disorder in the House — even as, amid the same disorder, he helped pushed them through.

The job of the presiding officer is to run the House, not just to ensure that the government’s business is done. Any response to unruly behaviour must be consistent with the democratic spirit, and not seen to be influenced by the stand of the party he belongs to or is supported by. Sunday’s events in Rajya Sabha, and the suspension of eight MPs, is especially disquieting when the Parliament session is truncated, Question Hour is suspended and Zero Hour is abbreviated in the name of the pandemic. At a time when the Opposition, already in a shrinking corner in the House, is being denied its right to have its say, and when the government is using Parliament to have its way, the Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha has a special responsibility to look beyond the Treasury Benches and accommodate other voices and views. After all, in the absence of the Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, the Deputy Chairperson is the custodian of its dignity and prestige, and of the rights and privileges of its members — all its members.

Sunday’s events in Rajya Sabha and their aftermath are also troubling because at their centre are pieces of legislation whose reformist intent is being undermined by the manner in which they have been passed. The only way out of this mess is the institutional one. The rules of the democracy game must be upheld, not the majority’s right of way.


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