Democracies around the world provide for independent secretariats to assist the presiding officers of legislatures in performing their duties. Headed by individuals with impeccable experience in dealing with parliamentary procedures, the secretariat plays an important role in imparting non-partisan advice to the official conducting the session.
However, the controversy in November around the removal of a Rajya Sabha secretary-general just 70 days after he was appointed shines a light on the weakening of the secretariat’s independent nature in India.
His replacement, no surprise, is a retired bureaucrat with no prior experience of parliamentary functioning. Appointing a bureaucrat from the executive as secretary-general in Parliament is a practice most robust democracies have avoided in order to maintain their non-partisan character.
The Indian Constitution calls for separate staff at the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats, with convention demanding that officers heading these secretariats must have the necessary years of expertise and knowledge in applying the rules.
The separate identities of the secretariats of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, are mandated through Article 98 of the Constitution and framed its recruitment rules. The rules actually identify the top post as a secretary, not a secretary-general. The occupant’s role is to advise the presiding officers of the House – the Speaker or deputy speaker in Lok Sabha and the Chairman or deputy chairman in Rajya Sabha.
Every day, during a parliamentary session, the top officer of the secretariat is expected to examine the business schedule and brief the Speaker or Chairman on procedural issues before the assembly of the House.
In addition, when proceedings are underway, the top-most officer of the secretariat, present at the head of the table, must be nimble enough to contribute to the procedural or technical matters that suddenly arise. Moreover, any member or minister can request technical guidance – perhaps in relation to a point of order they wish to make, or a motion they wish to move or a statement they wish to table.
However, the recruitment rules have neither been amended to include the post of secretary-general, nor has the secretary-general post been made statutory. As a consequence, appointments are the discretionary powers awarded to the Speaker or Chairman.
Why should a post of such enormous influence, controlling in effect the entire functioning of the Houses, not to mention its role in shaping the destiny of the nation, be subject to such ad hoc decisions?
In other democracies
The Clerk of the House in the United Kingdom Parliament is the principal constitutional adviser on all its procedures and business. The Clerk frequently appears before select and joint Committees, examining constitutional and Parliamentary matters. She has to be politically impartial and cannot be a civil servant.
In Canada, the Clerk of the House is appointed by the Governor-in-Council under the provision of the Public Service Employment Act. Neither the Clerk nor any parliamentary staff is part of the Canadian federal civil service. Currently, the appointment of a Clerk has to be referred to the Standing Committee on Procedures and House Affairs which reports its views to the House. A motion ratifying the appointment, put to the House during routine proceedings, seals the appointment.
The Clerk of the House in the Australian Parliament, without exception, is an officer who has been in the service of the House and the Table for a long period. In the United States, the selection of the Senate Secretary is by an agreement forged between the Republicans and the Democrats, followed by an election. Here too, there is no compromise on the long experience of parliamentary procedures as the main qualification for the Senate Secretary.
In the Indian Parliament
Juxtaposed against this is the conundrum of the selection and appointment of the secretary-general. The ruling government of the day decides the secretary-general candidate, with the appointment awarded through its Speaker or Chairman. Over the last two decades, there seems to be a precedent for the secretary-general to hail from either a retired pool of civil servants or those still in service (in which case the retirement age is pushed back by a couple of years by virtue of the secretary-general post being awarded a cabinet rank).
More importantly, the Opposition parties have no role to play.
In the absence of any set rule or procedure as prevalent in other democracies for appointing the top officer in Parliament, it becomes easier for the presiding officers in the Indian Parliament to either appoint or remove a senior officer at will and without assigning any reason whatsoever.
One may note the coincidental timing of the suspension of 12 Rajya Sabha members in its 255th winter session in 2021 for their alleged misconduct in the 254th session. There is no such provision under rule 256 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States to punish post facto for the alleged misbehaviour of Members of Parliament in the previous session. A well-versed secretary-general may have pointed out the rule position, lost favour, resulting in his sudden replacement.
Rank and file of the secretary-general
The rank of cabinet secretary for the secretary-general post merits examination. The nomenclature change for the highest administrative post in the secretariat was effected in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya sabha in the winter session of 1973. A parliamentary bulletin part II dated November 13, 1973, reads: “the secretary of Rajya Sabha has been re-designated as the Secretary-General of Rajya Sabha”.
BN Banerjee in the Rajya Sabha and SL Shakdhar in the Lok Sabha were the first designates to the secretary-general post. For most practical purposes, this seemed largely an internal arrangement – probably a step to differentiate top parliamentary officers from the secretaries to the government of India.
Later, salary and perks equivalent to the rank of a Cabinet secretary were approved by the parliamentary pay panel with substantial financial implications.
With this upgrade, the post of a secretary ceased to exist. Shockingly, however, a secretary post resurfaced nebulously during Somnath Chatterjee’s tenure as Lok Sabha Speaker in the mid-2000s and has been in place for about two decades now, without any administrative role or valid justification.
Yet another confounding fact is that despite the secretary-general post being created to stand above the rank of a secretary, it does not find mention in the Order of Precedence – the government-approved sequential hierarchy used for formal and state occasions.
The Order of Precedence does, however, mention the secretaries of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, thus legitimising only the post of secretary in each House. The efforts made to include the post of secretary-general along with the cabinet secretary in the Order of Precedence by the secretariats have proved unsuccessful, possibly pointing towards the transient outlook towards this post.
Without a foothold or any procedural rigour, the post of the secretary-general has become superfluous and seems to have no locus standi. It may, therefore, be prudent to revert and redesignate it as secretary as originally envisaged and mentioned in the recruitment rules. As is true of scientific ministries – only those conversant with the subject area are considered for appointment – the secretary post in the Parliament secretariat too should be open to only those who have an impeccable understanding of the business of the House.
A thorough review of the appointment procedure to identify officers with robust experience in parliamentary procedures in a participatory manner is required to reinstate the eroding credibility of this post. Appointing bureaucrats for this office may amount to a clear violation of the spirit of the Constitution in maintaining an independent character of the legislative body.
The author is director, Parliamentary and Administrative Research Institute, in New Delhi.