It’s a broken house: Parliament secretariats do the government’s bidding

New Delhi: In a landmark judgment last month, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court raised concerns about the autonomy of the Election Commission of India, saying the poll body would have an independent secretariat and its own budget. The judgment brings to the fore aspects of our democracy that are rarely raised even by opposition politicians: an auxiliary and independent secretariat in both Houses of Parliament.

Politicians create ruckus when the House is stalled. But they often neglect another important matter that protects the interests of the legislature. Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha both have their own secretariats. Lately, however, we are facing an unprecedented trend of both secretariats serving the interests of the executive.

We are facing the erosion of parliamentary democracy due to the cancerous growth of the executive, infiltrating the offices meant to protect the interests of the Members of Parliament. Now the situation has become such that matters relating to policies and even what should be discussed in the House have come into the hands of the executive.

Rules and regulations are being used to protect the executive, which must be held accountable in a proper and functional democracy. Paradoxically, it is the members of the executive who now occupy the Lok Sabha Secretariat and the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. And they are crossing their brief.

One of the authors of this piece had a bitter experience at the hands of this newly-empowered class regarding a private member’s bill on federalism for discussion in the Rajya Sabha. Earlier it was a practice that the Secretariat assisted a member in preparing his bill on the basis of the draft presented to him. It will also allow the member to re-introduce the resolution if there is an inconsistency. Instead, the resolution, which was voted as number one, was disallowed for frivolous reasons. The secretariat cited that the resolution contained more than two subjects. The reality was that the two could not be separated from each other – any discussion on federalism had to include the powers of the Governor. Thereafter, no opportunity was given by the Secretariat to re-submit the revised text as desired. This is unheard of in the history of our Parliament. All this is happening because key positions in the Parliament secretariats are held by individuals chosen by the executive, who do its bidding. This practice is a dedication to the values enshrined in the Constitution.

Even in the pre-independence era, the legislature had the power to be heard on whatever subjects the executive thought it wanted. There were provisions to protect the legislature from the possible excesses of the executive and its whims. We all agree that the erosion of the power of the legislature began long ago. But now things are on a very slippery slope and the accountability of the executive to the legislature is almost a thing of the past.

A large number of questions are not allowed and many have unsatisfactory answers.

Amendments and proposals are rejected on flimsy grounds mainly to please the executive. As students of political science, we have read about various theories on the source of political obligation: Why should we give respect to the state? Where does its validity come from? Power flows from “we, the people” and back through the pipeline of accountability. Elected representatives must be accountable to those who promote them to decision-making positions. In its absence, democracy is a sham.

A little more than 94 years ago, Vithalbhai Patel succeeded in setting up an independent secretariat for the Central Legislative Assembly—to which he was elected under the provisions of the Government of India Act 1919—and the first Indian to hold the post of Speaker (then the President). 1925. It was only after a protracted battle with the colonial administration that he managed to secure for the House a truly autonomous staff to look after the day-to-day functioning of the legislature. He believed it was important to maintain a semblance of fairness and impartiality. The danger of this ongoing reconstruction of the Secretariat was first emphasized by GV Mavalankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha. He highlighted how it is paramount for Parliament and its Secretariat to function independently of the executive.

Article 98 of the Constitution provides for the establishment, recruitment, and conditions of service of the Secretariat through the channel of parliamentary consensus. This too stands threatened today. Former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha Secretariat P D T Achary wrote in 2017 that any attempt to subvert the legislature would have to begin with “dispens[ing] with the independence of the Secretariat… This can be achieved by inducting officers of the executive… Being trained to serve the executive, the concept of independence of the legislature[‘s] Secretariat is alien to them.”

Induction to posts in all departments within the Secretariat is overseen by the Recruitment Cell, which periodically advertises vacancies and calls for applications. The process of recruitment varies for different positions but generally involves written examinations and interviews. The selection of a single IAS officer in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat during the Chairmanship of Shankar Dayal Sharma was massively frowned upon, so much so that it led to the establishment of an unofficial convention to refrain from employing officers of the central cadre in the service of either House. Come 2023, most of the senior posts are now held by those nominated from All-India Services.