Today, India will elect its 13th vice-president. The Vice-President of India is first in the presidential line of succession. But apart from that the vice president is also the ex-officio chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Like the president, the vice-president also plays a key role in India’s democratic system, in particular, with reference to the powers that the Rajya Sabha has in Indian democracy.
However, unlike the president who is elected via an electoral college of the houses of the Parliament and the members of the state legislatures, the vice-president is elected only by the central legislature — the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The election is different from other elections as it is done via a system of proportional representation by means of a single transferable vote. Members do not just have to select their preferred candidate as is done during the general election, but they also have to rank all candidates in order of their preference. This system was envisaged by the Constitution to ensure that in the event there were many political parties having differing views, the election of the vice president would still be one that was done via a consensus. The NDA on Friday held a dummy vote to explain to its members how this system works and to ensure that there were as few invalid ballots as possible.
The vice-president also holds a key role as the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha since the position is akin to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. The chairman presides over the sittings of the Upper House. Unlike the Lok Sabha though, the Rajya Sabha actually never dissolves with only one-third of its members retiring every two years. This makes the Rajya Sabha powerful politically as it ensures that there is always one house of the Parliament that can be summoned when the need arises. While under the Constitution only the President of India can call Parliament into session and prorogue Parliament, the president does not have the power to dissolve the Rajya Sabha.
Prorogation is the end of a session of the Rajya Sabha. Though the Rajya Sabha may sit any time while it is in session and is constitutionally required to hold a sitting once every six months, the chairman has the power to call a sitting of the Rajya Sabha. What this means is, while there is no Lok Sabha, if the Rajya Sabha has not been prorogued yet, the chairman may call the Upper House into session to discuss any matter the chairman sees fit.
Further, the chairman also has the power to control the debate in the Rajya Sabha, and this may be the key function that the office provides. Also, being the Upper House of the Parliament, the Rajya Sabha is a house that is always in session. This creates a situation where the power to control the debate becomes powerful. The chairman may decide on the admissibility of questions, resolutions or motions in terms of the rules of the Rajya Sabha and no decision of the chairman may be called into question by any court as it would breach Parliamentary privilege. Therefore, tomorrow if a certain set of MPs wish to debate a matter, and the government would rather not have it debated, the chairman may decide that the House will not take up the matter for debate. This is why the election of the vice president is strongly contested right now.
The government enjoys an absolute majority in the Lower House and is in line to take a majority in the Rajya Sabha given the recent electoral victories in the States. This means that the government could effectively control both houses of the Parliament should its candidate be elected, not only when it concerns legislation but also debates. A control over both houses, however, has its own implications, which could push the current govt’s allies to vote against the ruling party’s candidate. For example, today, the government’s allies may agree to vote in favour of their candidate, but tomorrow the same allies may find that there is no wiggle room to debate issues that they consider important as the chairman may scuttle debate.
Another thing that is of concern is Article 249 of the Constitution which gives the Rajya Sabha a unique power. If two-thirds of the members of the Rajya Sabha are of the opinion that there needs to be a central law on a matter within the jurisdiction of the states, upon passing of such a resolution, the Parliament would be empowered to make such a law. The resolution has to be renewed annually.
Laws on cow slaughter laws are within the ambit of a state, but if the government can get a resolution in the Rajya Sabha, it becomes competent to enact a nationwide law on cow slaughter. The resolution will have to be renewed annually, but politically it will not be expedient for any political party to call for the repeal of such a law by refusing to renew that resolution. And this is something the country needs to be concerned about as very clearly a ban on cow slaughter is on the government’s agenda, and the Rajya Sabha may just be key to securing an all-India ban. So, to ensure that the resolution is passed the government will need the good offices of the Rajya Sabha chairman.
The vice-president enjoys a lot of power in our constitutional scheme of things. The vote is via a secret ballot, therefore, members may choose to vote based on their conscience on the matter and ignore their party whips. It will be interesting to see how their conscience is exercised when they vote during the current vice presidential election.