The elections for the next Vice-President of India are underway today. The current Vice President Dr. Hamid Ansari will complete his second five-year term on August 10, which is in a few days. While the BJP-led NDA’s candidate is Mr. Venkaiah Naidu, Dr. Gopalkrishna Gandhi is the joint candidate fronted by 18 opposition parties led by the INC. In this post, we take a closer look at the constitutional mandate and role of the Vice-President of India and how the elections for the post will play out today.
Constitutional mandate as Vice President
The Vice-President is the second-highest constitutional office in India. He acts as the President in the absence of the incumbent President, and is the ex officio Chairman of Rajya Sabha. As an indication of his bipartisanship and apolitical character, the Vice-President does not hold membership of any political party or any other office of profit. Further, given his constitutional stature, the statements given by the Vice President assume national significance. The outgoing Vice President’s statements on issues like press freedom and welfare of minority communities led to several media debates and attracted widespread attention.
Vice-President’s role as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha
As Chairman of Rajya Sabha, the Vice President is the final authority on the interpretation of the Constitution and the Rules of Procedure for all house-related matters. His rulings constitute binding precedent. He also determines whether a Rajya Sabha member stands to be disqualified on grounds of defection. Such powers make him an important stakeholder in the functioning of our parliamentary democracy.
The Vice President is also vested with powers to improve the functioning of the Upper House. There have been several instances where the current Vice President has used his powers to address issues ranging from improving the productivity of question hour, reducing prolonged disruptions, maintaining decorum in the House, to facilitating discussion on issues of national importance.
Addressing disruptions: In March 2010, the Vice President ordered seven MPs to be evicted from the House for causing disruptions during the discussion and passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill. More recently, in December 2015, the Vice President called for an all-party meeting during the last leg of the then ongoing Winter Session to discuss the matter of continuous disruptions in the House. The remaining three days of the session after the all-party meet recorded 79% productivity, while the House had recorded overall productivity of 51% that session.
Functioning of Question Hour: In another instance, in November 2014, the Vice President issued a direction to conduct question hour from 12 noon to 1 pm instead of the originally allocated first hour of the day. This was seen as an attempt to address the issue of low productivity of question hour mostly due to disruptions at the start of the day. However, question hour productivity has not shown any significant improvement yet, with continuing disruptions.
Parliamentary Privilege: Parliamentary privilege refers to rights and immunity enjoyed by Parliament and MPs, which may be necessary to effectively discharge their constitutional functions. When disregarded, the offence is called a breach of privilege and is punishable under law. The Chairman is the guardian of these privileges and can also issue warrants to execute the orders of the House, where necessary. In 1967, one person was held to be in contempt of Rajya Sabha for throwing leaflets from the visitors’ gallery of the House. The then Vice President, in accordance with the resolution of the House, had sentenced the person to simple imprisonment, till the conclusion of that session.
The Chairman’s consent is required to raise a question of breach of privilege. He also has the discretion whether to refer it to the Privileges Committee, and whether to accept the committee’s recommendations. In October 2015, the current Vice President had referred the matter of a member’s controversial “terrorists in Parliament” remark to the Privileges Committee upon receiving complaints from several opposition MPs.
Role in Parliamentary Committees and other institutions
Parliamentary committees review proposed laws, oversee activities of the executive, and scrutinise government’s expenditure. The Vice President nominates members to various Parliamentary Committees, appoints their Chairmen and issues directions to them. The Vice President also nominates members of the Rajya Sabha on various bodies such as the Haj Committee, the Institute of Constitutional and Parliamentary Studies, Courts of several universities such as JNU, etc. He is also on the three-member Committee which nominates the Chairman of the Press Council of India.
So, how is the Vice President elected?
Unlike Presidential elections, MLAs do not have a vote in these elections. Dr. B R Ambedkar had explained why during the constituent assembly debates: “The President is the Head of the State and his powers extend both to the administration by the centre as well as of the states… But when we come to the Vice-President, his normal functions are merely to preside over the Council of States. It is only on a rare occasion, and that too for a temporary period, that he may be called upon to assume the duties of a President”.
Therefore, the Electoral College for the Vice- Presidential elections consists of all 790 MPs. The elections are conducted using the system of single transferable voting that results in (approximately) proportional representation. The voting is done through secret ballot implying that parties cannot issue whips to their MPs and anti-defection laws do not apply.
Each voter has one vote with the same value of 1. Every voter can mark as many preferences, as there are candidates contesting the election. It is necessary for at least the first preference to be marked. A candidate needs to win a required number of votes (or the quota) to be elected. If no one achieves the required quota after the first round of counting the first preference votes, the candidate with the lowest votes is eliminated. His votes are then transferred to the second preference mentioned (if any) on the votes he received. If no one achieves the required quota again, the process is repeated till either:
The upcoming Vice Presidential elections
Let us now determine the quota required for victory in today’s election. The total value of votes of the electoral college is divided by two, and one is added (to ensure a majority) to the quotient to determine the quota. Hence, the quota is calculated as:
Quota = 790/2 + 1 = 395 + 1= 396
The candidate who gets 396 votes will win the election. If no candidate gets to this mark, the second and further preferences may be counted until the mark is reached or all candidates, but one, are eliminated.
We know the number of seats held by each party in Parliament. Let us assume that all MPs vote along their party line. The position of the NDA and UPA is depicted in the figure below at the two ends of the chart. All other major parties and independents are marked in the middle.
We observe that, while the BJP falls short of the quota by 58 votes, the shortfall can be overcome if NDA allies TDP, Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal, LJP and PDP support its candidate.
With the voting taking place this morning, the outcome and results will become clear by later today. It is hoped that the new Vice President will uphold the twin constitutional mandates as the second highest constitutional functionary and the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, just as his distinguished predecessors have done.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.