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Personal staff in parliamentary committees?

Personal staff in parliamentary committees?

The efficiency and effectiveness of democratic institutions depend on their administrators. It is when there have been rampant complaints of divisive politics and its style of governance trying to put pressure on the Parliament, the judiciary, the Election Commission and the media, which have been the guardians of Indian democracy that there are now accusations of a different kind of political pressure on the functioning of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Parliament. Rajya Sabha Chairman Jagdeep Dhankhar has stirred up a controversy by attaching eight members of his personal staff with 20 committees under the ambit of Rajya Sabha including the parliamentary standing committees and departmental parliamentary committees.

The opposition has termed the move as 'extraordinary'. Similarly, the way it was implemented and the people appointed to the committees are also being criticised. Many see it as a move to subvert the institution. At the same time, Dhankhar explains that his staff were appointed to assist the committees. He added that it was to make available the information required for discussions and that he had discussed the matter with the chairperson of the committee concerned. However, the Rajya Sabha Secretariat already has enough qualified and experienced staff to provide the required information and other assistance to the committees. Then the question arises as to why Dhankhar is attaching his personal staff to the team. Moreover, his claim that he had consulted the concerned persons has already been refuted. Jairam Ramesh who is the Congress' chief whip in Rajya Sabha and also the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forests and Climate Change, said Dhankhar had never consulted him.

If the allegation that the chairman himself has single-handedly interfered in the functioning and procedures of the committee is true, then it is of grave concern. During his tenure as the Governor of West Bengal, Dhankhar was constantly at loggerheads with the non-BJP government in the state. There are complaints that he has not acted impartially as the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. By lashing out at the opposition leader and expunging the charges he had raised against the government from the records, he has created an impression of a referee playing on the field. There were allegations against Dhankhar that as the Governor, he had attached his extended family to his personal staff; Trinamool Congress MP Mahuva Moitra had also released a list of such appointments. There are allegations that some of those who have now been attached to the Rajya Sabha committees are his relatives. As the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, he is constitutionally bound to be neutral and impartial. But he has appointed his relatives to the standing committees despite complaints that he is not giving the opposition a fair chance on important national issues. This goes against the democratic principles and the Constitution.

There is a strong argument that the decision to include 'relatives' in the committees is illegal. It is unnecessary and unreasonable. As pointed out by former MP D. Raja, it is also a violation of parliamentary procedures. The committees belong to the Rajya Sabha and not the chairman. Rajya Sabha being a representative of the states, it is necessary to listen to the views at that level as well. There is some room for political appointments in personal staff, are faulty, but it is not the case with committee officials. The post of the chairman of the Rajya Sabha is given to him as the Vice president and not as an elected member. There is no place for personal or political appointments in the committees of the elected members. As P. D. T. Achary, who was the Secretary General of the Lok Sabha says, the members of the Parliamentary Committee are already defined. Only the MPs and officials of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha should be included in them. The Speaker or the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha does not have the power to appoint members. It is on the basis of the rules and guidelines that people like Advocate Prashant Bhushan opine that appointments made now are illegal and an abuse of power. There is no need to attach personal staff to the Rajya Sabha panels when there already exists a department of officials for assisting the committees. There have also been allegations that this new trend of mixing up the personal staff and the official system is capable of subverting the administration itself. Those in constitutional positions should make efforts to improve the existing system and make it more democratised and not jeopardize it instead. It is the responsibility of the chairman to give the members and the committees the freedom to function properly. Governance is not about interfering in every matter but reinforcing the systems to function smoothly in accordance with the law. The Speaker of the House, be it the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha, is a constitutional office rather than a political one.

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