Rajya Sabha chairman M Venkaiah Naidu: A guardian in troubled times
On August 5, 2019, Naidu played a crucial role when the House approved the abrogation of Article 370 and passed the bill bifurcating Jammu & Kashmir into two union territories
In his opening remarks as the newly-elected Vice President of India in 2017, M Venkaiah Naidu had told the Rajya Sabha, of which he is the chairman, “I can operate only if you cooperate.” His marvellous play of words (his fans call it ‘Venkaiahism’) had set the rule of the game. And after five tumultuous years of the House marred with disruptions, intensified protests and high rate of suspension of MPs, it also proved to be an accurate prophecy.
Naidu, a staunch believer in “debate, discuss and decide and not disrupt”, faced arguably the toughest time as the chairman in the history of the House. His predecessor Hamid Ansari was in favour of adjourning the House quickly to quell disruptions. But Naidu tried to run the House as much as possible, passionately focused on improving the performances of the standing committees and refused to compromise on the dignity of the House when the political divides turned into aggressive protests and unruly dissidence.
On August 5, 2019, Naidu played a crucial role when the House approved the abrogation of Article 370 and passed the bill bifurcating J&K into two union territories. The government managers had feared massive Opposition protests might force repeated adjournments of the House and derail the crucial legislative plans.
In the morning, Naidu’s doting wife had forced him to sit in the puja room as she prayed. Doctors checked his vitals before he left for Rajya Sabha. Hours before the House was to start, he held a quick meeting with officials to ensure no procedurals lapses. The proceedings withstood the Opposition protests without any adjournment and a discussion on the proposed laws vital to J&K could be undertaken.
But it was in the same Rajya Sabha, where the three farm laws were passed without any debate in 2020. And a year later, the repeal bill too, was passed without any debate. In 2021 winter session, 12 Opposition MPs were suspended in a controversial decision in the Rajya Sabha for their misconduct in the previous session. As the political divide between the NDA government and the Opposition intensified, Rajya Sabha emerged as the biggest battlefield of the two.
But Naidu oversaw a gradual improvement from low productivity. His first session as the chairman, winter 2017, had 54% productivity. 2018 was the worst performing year of Naidu-led Rajya Sabha with the three sessions clocking 27%, 68% and 26% productivity, according to PRS data.
But 2019 onwards, average productivity improved and 2020 proved to be the best year for Naidu in terms of productivity of the House. The three sessions of Parliament saw 74%, 99% and 100% utilisation of time even as India grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic and all sessions were curtailed.
“In Parliament, either you should talk out or walk out. But what is happening is a frequent breakout. If this continues, democracy will be all out,” Naidu had said, as things rapidly turned sour. In Naidu’s five years, the average productivity of Rajya Sabha stood at 70%, a moderate success given the frequent disruptions and protests in the House.
Data available with Rajya Sabha shows 58 issues disrupted the House in 13 sessions and the Special Category Status for AP triggered the most disruptions, 78% of Rajya Sabha Member sign the daily attendance register and the time spent on oversight function of the House has been declining. “The productivity of the first five sessions has been in the range of only 6.80% to 58.80% while it has substantially improved in six of the next eight sessions clocking productivity in the range of 76% to 105% with five sessions working for about 100% of the scheduled time,” a House report said.
Other achievements of Naidu include, regular monitoring of the functioning of the Committees resulting in improved performance, manifold increase in public outreach through media on the functioning of the House, hassle free and safe conduct of the sessions of the House since the outbreak of Covid - 19 pandemic in early 2020, bringing to an end the colonial practices in the House and increased use of Indian languages and technology in the functioning of the House.
Till budget session 2022, Naidu presided over 13 full sessions and 261 sittings as against the scheduled 289 sittings were held during this period amounting to 913 hours 11 minutes of work. 177 Bills were passed/returned by Rajya Sabha during these 13 sessions and the best average legislative output was in 2019, when 52 Bills were passed, the highest in 36 years.
Naidu’s tenure saw a total of 936 of 3525 Starred Questions orally answered, 1526 Zero Hour submissions and 953 Special Mentions and 57% of the sittings of Rajya Sabha were disrupted while 43% were free of such disruptions.
As he demits the second-highest constitutional office on August 10, M Venkaiah Naidu will shift to 1, Tyagraj Marg. But it’s unlikely to be a quiet life of a retired Vice President. He will remain active and do what he loves the most: meeting people.