Marching to well may cost Rajya Sabha members voting rights

In an attempt to deter MPs from rushing to the well of the Rajya Sabha, a panel formed to review House rules has suggested that lawmakers who do so be barred from voting on bills.

The panel has also suggested that discussions under rule 267— a route favoured by Opposition parties demanding an urgent debate — be restricted to just half-an-hour and all the rules be made gender-neutral.

Currently, in many rules, many of the references are to masculine pronouns. According to a member of the General Purpose Committee, the review panel wants references to MPs and posts to be made gender-neutral. All members of the committee have accepted this suggestion.

Opposition leaders chose not to react to these suggestions, and said the panel comprised only two retired officials. “We will take a stand when serious discussions start on a possible change of rules,” said a non-Congress Opposition leader who didn’t want to be named.

Rajya Sabha chairman M Venkaiah Naidu formed the two-member panel to review the rules in May 2018 after discrepancies were noticed in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha rules. One of the key issues that prompted the formation of the panel was that the Rajya Sabha chair can’t automatically suspend disruptive members, unlike the Lok Sabha speaker, who can.

The report, prepared by former Rajya Sabha secretary general VK Agnihotri and former additional secretary in the law ministry Dinesh Bhardwaj, was presented to the General Purpose Committee of the Upper House on Tuesday.

This is the first report on long-pending reforms of rules in the House. It paves the way for amendments to the rule book and seeks to ensure the House runs more effectively.

Protesting lawmakers flocking to the well of the House has become a major concern and repeated meetings or resolutions have not been able to end the practice. On several occasions, MPs have been suspended in the Lok Sabha, where the chair is empowered to automatically suspend any disruptive MP.

The Agnihotri-Bhardwaj panel’s new formula — to bar MPs rushing to the well from voting — can have major consequences as the fate of a bill is decided mostly through voting. In the 245-member-House, every vote matters, especially for the Opposition.

The panel has also proposed a provision for automatic suspension.

Rule 267 says that a member, with the chair’s consent, can demand that the scheduled business be suspended to take up an urgent debate. In the first half of the budget session, rule 267 became a major issue as opposition parties, unable to move a motion to discuss the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), maintained that if their notices under the rule were not going to be taken up, there needs to be a rethink on continuing with the provision.

The panel held 51 meetings to prepare its report. It has suggested 77 amendments to the existing rules besides 124 new rules for consideration. Naidu pointed out that the panel has merely suggested changes and further discussion will take place on the proposals.

The Opposition, however, raised questions on the composition of the General Purpose Committee, which tackles issues related to functioning of the House.

They argued that the Aam Aadmi Party, which has three MPs in the Upper House, has found no representation and the Nationalist Congress Party, with four MPs, has not been included but that both YSR Congress Party members of the House have been made members of the committee. The YSR Congress Party has voted with the ruling BJP on several bills.

Afzal Amanullah, former parliamentary affairs secretary, said, “The proposals to bar MPs who come down to the Well from voting is impractical and against democratic principals. If the panel has suggested such a ban along with time restrictions in rule 267, then they are trying to stifle the voice of dissent in a democracy. There are other ways to maintain peace and decorum in the House.”