By Appointing Personal Staff to RS Panels, VP Dhankhar Risks Undoing Efforts of Freedom Struggle

The Rajya Sabha chairman appointing some officials from his personal staff in the committees of the House has generated a great deal of media discussion. Beyond a general feeling that these appointments are unprecedented and unusual, the general public – or even the media – does not seem to have a clear idea of the implications of such an administrative step for the functioning of the parliamentary committees, which are called miniature parliament and which have all the powers and privileges of the houses of parliament. It is, therefore, necessary to go into a bit of the history of the parliament secretariats which serve the two Houses and which were established under Article 98 of the constitution.

The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms in 1919 provided for a bicameral legislature for British India for the first time. Accordingly, under the Government of India Act, 1919 the council of states was created as the upper House and the Central Legislative Assembly was established as the lower House. The council of states used to meet in the Metcalfe House and the Central Legislative Assembly in the present Delhi assembly chamber, both in what is now called Old Delhi. The administrative work of both Houses was looked after by the Secretary to the government of India in the legislative department.

In 1925 Vithalbhai Patel, the elder brother of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, became the speaker of the central assembly as the first elected speaker. Before long, he felt the need to have an independent secretariat manned by officers who were not part of the executive – because the independence of the speaker was prejudicially affected by the fact that a secretary to the government of India was looking after the secretarial needs of both Houses of the central legislature.

Patel wrote to the British government on this issue several times but the government refused to entertain this demand. Nevertheless, he persisted in his efforts. When Patel was re-elected as speaker, he reiterated the demand for an independent secretariat but the British government did not fully accept it. It was then that Pandit Motilal Nehru brought a resolution on the issue and the assembly unanimously adopted it. Thereupon, the hitherto stubborn British government relented and accepted the demand and thus on January 10, 1929 an independent department of the central legislative assembly was established with the speaker as its head. However, the governor-general continued to be the ex-officio head of the council of states.

Vithalbhai Patel. Photo: Photo Division, Govt of India, Public Domain

Independence of secretariats

The above narration is necessary to get a perspective on the historical significance of the secretariats of parliament, which are fundamentally different from the secretariat of the government. They are different functionally and also in terms of attitudes, ethos and work culture.

After all, why did Vithalbhai Patel and the eminent members of the central assembly fight uncompromisingly for an independent secretariat for the Central assembly? The fact is that Patel rightly believed that if parliament was to function as an autonomous institution whose chief function is to scrutinise the functions of the government, then there must be an independent secretariat whose officials did not have to take orders from the senior officers of the executive. Patel knew that parliament could not maintain its independence without an independent secretariat.

If, for example, questions asked by the members of the House are to be cleared by the officers of the executive or the recommendations of the committees are to be approved by them, then parliament will cease to function as an independent institution. Patel and the entire members of the assembly realised this truth as far back as 1925.

The present secretariats of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha are the successors of the independent secretariat of the central legislative assembly established by the colonial government after yielding to the pressure from great democratic leaders like Vithalbhai Patel, Motilal Nehru and others. The two secretariats of free India’s parliament have maintained the spirit of independence imparted to the assembly secretariat by Vithalbhai Patel in 1929. Luckily, leaders like Nehru and Patel had instinctive respect for the independence of parliament and its secretariat, which is why Article 98 found a place in the constitution. This Article sanctifies the principle of independence of the secretariats of parliament.

Article 98 provides for a law for regulating the recruitment and service conditions of the employees of parliament secretariats. This is a special provision made exclusively for them, unlike the general provision contained in Article 309, which applies to all categories of employees employed by the Union or the states. Article 309 does not cover the employees of the parliament secretariats. Thus, separate and special provisions were made for them to make them independent of the executive.

Parliament secretariats are functionally organised to meet the functional needs of the Houses. It is a terrible misconception that officers from All India Services could provide expert service to the Houses of Parliament. There is another misconception, namely that parliament’s instrumentalities need the expertise of men of the Indian Administrative Service. It is a fallacy that the committees of parliament are expert bodies and their reports are expert reports. Parliamentary committee reports are supposed to reflect the views of parliamentarians. They are not experts but have definite views on public issues which get reflected in the reports of the committees. Therefore, the increasing induction of officers from the All Indian Services into higher positions in parliament secretariats in the name of “expertise” is a distortion of the constitutional scheme contained in Article 98. Such action will take these institutions to the pre-1929 period, when the Central Assembly was manned by the officers of the government and Vithalbhai Patel had to fight for the independence of the secretariats.

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VP’s move repugnant to the Rules

Viewed in this background, the appointment of officers of the personal staff of the presiding officers in committees appears to be repugnant to the Rule which defines committees. Rules are the same for both Houses. In case there is no Rule for a particular matter in the Rule book of Rajya Sabha, the Rules of the Lok Sabha are followed. According to the definition of a parliamentary committee in the Lok Sabha Rules, a committee means one that is appointed by the House or nominated by the speaker, for which the secretariat is provided by the Lok Sabha Secretariat. Rule 268 says that when the committee deliberates, all persons other than the members and officers of the secretariat shall withdraw. “Officers of the secretariat” means those who were recruited by the speaker or the chairman under the recruitment and service conditions rule, framed under Article 98 of the constitution – and nobody else. The personal staff of the presiding officers do not belong to this category.

Then, how can they be appointed to the committees by the presiding officers of the two Houses? As a matter of fact, they can provide no expertise to the committees because the work they have been doing during their career has virtually nothing to do with the committees’ work – the two secretariats of parliament possess sufficient expertise in executing the committees’ work, which they have gained through decades of hard work. It is an idle fantasy that one fine morning, the parliament secretariats can be flooded with experts from outside to man its system. No such expertise exists outside the system of parliament.

P.D.T. Achary is former secretary-general, Lok Sabha.