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Voice Vote as Constitutional Subterfuge

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February 22, 2021

What is the issue?

  • The Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill was recently passed by the State’s Legislative Council by voice vote.
  • The practice of resorting to voice vote and passing bills despite lack of a majority is increasing, and here is a constitutional assessment of it.

How was the Bill passed?

  • The law was passed by the Upper House despite the lack of a majority.
  • A division vote based on actual voting is the usual practice and the Opposition members had demanded the same.
  • But, instead of this, the presiding officer just declared the Bill passed by voice vote without any division.

Why is this notable?

  • A similar process was followed to pass the controversial farm laws (by the Rajya Sabha) in September 2020.
  • Here too, the government seemed to lack a majority to pass the bills in the Upper House.
  • And instead of a division vote, a voice vote was deemed to be adequate by the Deputy Speaker of the House.
  • In both cases, the disturbance caused in the House by the Opposition was used as a pretext to resort to a voice vote.
  • Given the controversy around the farm laws, the government has repeatedly invoked multiple consultations around these laws.
  • However, the fact that the pieces of legislation were passed without an actual legislative majority voting has not been given due attention.
  • These two sets of laws passed with a voice vote seem like a new template for bypassing the constitutionally envisaged legislative process.
  • Indeed, both were first passed as ordinances.
  • And once they were tabled in the legislature, the governments insisted on the Bills not being referred to the legislative committees in either case.
    • This was despite the fact that the Opposition repeatedly raised the demand.

What is the Money Bill route used in recent days?

  • The voice vote method supplements the other technique repeatedly deployed over the last few years to bypass the Upper House of the Parliament.
  • It is the Money Bill route, which is increasingly used in instances even where the laws concerned would not easily fit within that definition.
  • Most notoriously, the Aadhaar Bill was passed in this manner.
  • The other controversial laws passed in the same manner include:
    • laws pertaining to electoral bonds
    • retrospective validation of foreign political contributions
    • the overhaul of the legal regime relating to tribunals

What do these practices imply?

  • The increasing use of the Money Bill route was defended by the Leader of the Rajya Sabha.
  • He condemned the repeated questioning by the indirectly elected Rajya Sabha of the wisdom of the directly elected Lok Sabha.
  • Underlying this common sentiment is a tendency to devalue bicameralism itself.
  • The Lok Sabha is seen as directly representing the will of the people, and the Rajya Sabha as standing in its way.
  • Democracy itself is seen purely in terms of parliamentary majority in the Lower House.
  • So, the countervailing function of the Upper House is rarely seen as legitimate.

How significant has Rajya Sabha been?

  • The Rajya Sabha has historically stopped the ruling party from carrying out even more significant legal changes.
  • The notorious Emergency-era 42nd Constitutional Amendment could not be repealed in toto by the post-Emergency Janata regime.
  • This is essentially because the Congress continued to have a strong presence in the Rajya Sabha.
  • The Rajiv Gandhi government’s proposed 64th Constitutional Amendment Bill on Panchayati Raj was narrowly defeated in the Rajya Sabha.
    • This was even though it enjoyed the highest ever majority in Lok Sabha.
  • But neither of these governments resorted to constitutional subterfuge or attacked the Rajya Sabha’s constitutional role.
  • Indeed, the Rajya Sabha is undoubtedly imperfect.
  • This is partly because of constitutional design and partly because of obviously undesirable practices.
  • However, forms of constitutional fraud that reduce its role to nothing cannot be overlooked.
  • It is important to understand the crucial constitutional role that such a body plays.

Why is bicameralism crucial?

  • The two Houses are chosen by different processes of representation and elected on a different schedule.
  • The very questioning of the monopoly of the Lower House to represent the ‘people’ makes bicameralism desirable.
  • In India, the Rajya Sabha membership is determined by elections to State Assemblies.
  • This leads to a different principle of representation, often allowing different factors to prevail than those in the Lok Sabha elections.
  • The second chamber’s performance of a review role becomes particularly important.
  • This offers the opportunity for a second legislative scrutiny.
  • The other merit of bicameralism is especially significant in a Westminster system like India, where the Lower House is dominated by the executive.
    • The Rajya Sabha holds the potential of a somewhat different legislative relation to the executive, making a robust separation of powers possible.
  • Given these, it is high time that India preserves the sanctity of its legislative procedures.


Source: The Hindu

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