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Hamid Ansari on 10 years as Rajya Sabha chairman

By Karan Thapar
Last updated on: August 14, 2017 11:17 IST
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'The chair is a referee in a match, whether this side is playing better or that side is playing worse is no concern of the chair.'

Vice Presidents Hamid Ansari and Venkaiah Naidu

IMAGE: Former vice president Hamid Ansari, left, with his successor Muppavarapu Venkaiah Naidu at the farewell accorded to Ansari on his last day as Rajya Sabha chairman.
Photograph: Shahbaz Khan/PTI Photo


Along with being the Vice President of India for 10 years, Hamid Ansari was also the chairman of the Rajya Sabha for that tenure.

A seat that put him right at the centre of one of the most important political transitions of modern India.

In part three of his exclusive interview with Karan Thapar, he reflects on his time in the Upper House and holds up a mirror to the inner workings of it.

Mr Ansari, let us talk about your job as chairman of the Rajya Sabha.
10 years ago when you first presided over the Upper House there were many people, including your friends, who were little nervous as they thought that he has no experience of this. Will he be able to do it?
Were you apprehensive on that first day?

No, only to the extent that any new situation you approach it diffidently.

But you had the confidence not to show it because it certainly didn't show on your face. Inside were there moments when you said to yourself what am I letting myself in for?

Well, chairing a meeting was a new experience. There were other kinds of meetings which had been chaired in different points in life, so chairing a meeting was just that.

Except that in the Rajya Sabha, particularly as the years went on you ended up with a House that acquired a reputation for frequent disruptions, several members who were unruly and indisciplined -- and I will be honest with you, not only did this shock the Indian people when they see it on television but this sort of behaviour would have been intolerable in the British or Australian parliaments, to name just two.
People often ask why isn't Hamid Ansari asserting himself, why isn't he imposing more discipline?

Well, the answer is very simple. The chair of the House -- be it the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the chairman of the Rajya Sabha -- is a referee, is an umpire in a cricket match.

The referee is given a rule book, and the referee cannot go beyond the rule book.

Rules were made at a different stage in history when certain forms of behaviour were acceptable and certain forms of behaviour were not imagined.

Things have changed over time. Indian society has changed over time. Public behaviour has changed over time. We have not caught up with it.

It's interesting you talk about the rule book. Actually the rule book could have permitted you to name and shame; the rule book could have permitted you to even suspend...
In fact, Subhash Kashyap once said instead of repeated adjournments -- and the Rajya Sabha seems to be adjourned two three times a day -- why doesn't Mr Ansari, why doesn't his deputy enforce the rules?

Because they know what the rules say and what their powers are. There are only two rules in the Rajya Sabha rule of books.

An individual member may be named and asked to withdraw -- that is one rule.

The other rule is that if there is a motion in the House, it is put forward and is carried.

Did you often name and ask members to withdraw?

On one occasion I told a member he was skating very close to the rule. And he picked up his papers and walked out. I didn't tell him to walk out.

I tell you why I ask this question...

On another occasion I did ask a member to withdraw...

And he did.

He did.

I'll tell you why I asked this question.
I was once in Australia, and I was at the house of representatives. To my astonishment -- and also to my delight -- I heard the speaker say to the prime minister that she will withdraw and apologies for the comment she made about Tony Abbott who was then the leader of the opposition.
The prime minister was reluctant to do so and did so inadequately and the speaker interrupted and in a strong tone said that the prime minister will withdraw and at once the prime minister did. And the speaker simply said: Thank you and carry on.
People often wonder why aren't our presiding officers as stern and tough as that?

Indian culture.

You mean our ministers and MPs won't take it?

NO... They would if pushed to the wall, but our culture is to be less than stern and therefore you hint, you insinuate, you suggest but you don't go all the way.

And when that hinting and insinuation doesn't make its point, then you have to accept the bedlam that ensues.

No, you adjourn, and then you talk.

You see there is a process. Every disruption does not mean that it is a standoff. There is a point being scored in every disruption or which leads to a disruption

But the interesting point is that Indian culture doesn't allow you to be as much of a disciplinarian as the speaker of the house of commons can be and get away with it.

Because the social atmosphere is different.

One of the problems is that the Rajya Sabha has a different composition to the Lower House; the government has a majority in the Lower House.
It does not, or at least until very recently did not have anything like the same numbers in the Upper House.
How conscious were you of that when you handled the Rajya Sabha?

No, it did not matter at all.

It was not the first time in the history of the Indian Parliament that such a situation had risen.

The composition of the House has very little to do with what the role of the chair is.

The chair is a referee in a match, whether this side is playing better or that side is playing worse is no concern of the chair.

And you saw yourself as a referee.


The problem is -- and you probably remember this better than me -- in December 2011, when the Manmohan Singh government was in power, you got sharply criticised by the BJP, which was then in Opposition.
They said you were guilty of not being an impartial referee. They said you are guilty of partisanship.
It happened at the end of the debate on the Lokpal Bill when people were expecting a vote, and you ended up adjourning the House sine die (with no appointed date for resumption).
The BJP said you'd done this because the government would have lost the vote and you were protecting Manmohan Singh's government.
Arun Jaitley publicly said that this was partisan behaviour, and I believe Yogendra Yadav called it match fixing.
Looking back, was that an error of judgment, or would you defend your decision?

Absolutely not... Absolutely not.

What was done that evening was done exactly in terms of rules and procedures because what the public does not know is that the Parliament meets for the duration it meets under a command from the head of State, which is initiated at the urging of the government.

So, if the President of India says that Parliament would meet from the first of till the 31st of the month, that's it.

Unless it is extended by the government through the President again it cannot become the next day.

And at midnight that time had run out so you had to adjourn.

Absolutely. Otherwise it would have been an Indian version of the long parliament.


How Hamid Ansari tried to end a Rajya Sabha logjam


Now Arun Jaitley, probably in response to the problem that the government has getting its legislation passed in the Rajya Sabha has made two proposals both in a sense adopted from conventions and practices of the British house of lords, and I want to bounce them off you.
The first is he says that India needs something like Britain's Salisbury Convention whereby any legislation that is part of a manifesto commitment of the government will be passed by the Upper House even if the government doesn't have a majority in the Upper House.
The critical factor being this is a manifesto commitment.
Do you think we need something like that?

The short answer is that the Rajya Sabha is not the house of lords, and while the Salisbury Convention has been talked about, it does not apply.

It is not relevant to Indian conditions.

It's a consciously created independent house, and if you look at the text of the Constitution wherever the two Houses are mentioned, the Rajya Sabha or the Council of States is mentioned before the Lok Sabha is mentioned.

The two Houses have been created deliberately, consciously, purposefully and that purpose remains as valid today as it was done.

The Salisbury Convention would seek to circumvent the powers and prerogative of the Upper House in a way that would be unfitting and unconstitutional in India.


The second suggestion, once again Mr Jaitley is borrowing from the British political system, is that any legislation passed by the Lower House cannot be held up for more than a year by the Upper House in India, reciting the parliamentary act in Britain of 1911 as amended in 1949.
Do you think something similar should apply in India or again would you say this is unconstitutional, and it undermines the independent standing of the Rajya Sabha?

Look, why was a second House necessary either in the Indian Parliament or in the Australian parliament or the Canadian parliament or the American senate for that matter?

I mean in our case it was partly to reflect the diversity of India.

Then, secondly, a more substantive and immediate requirement was a kind of second look at legislation.

Because what is happening is, and I've said this in my Bangalore speech, that unlike the '50s and early '60s, when Parliament used to sit for 100 days, today it is sitting for almost half the time, which means enough time is not available either for deliberation of legislation or on accountability of the government or in discussions of issues of public interest...

So, don't curtail it further...

You cannot curtail it further without abrogating the responsibility...

So, once again, a cut off that means that the Upper House cannot hold back legislation passed for more than a year, would not fit into India's political system.
It may apply in Britain, because the house of lords is not an elected House.
The Rajya Sabha is not just an elected House, it also represents the states, which the Lower House may not do quite the same way, and certainly the house of lords doesn't either.

Oh! Absolutely, and the Rajya Sabha is a responsible House.

Most of the time all the political parties are represented by senior people... people with great experience of public life in different walks...

... and their deliberation is important...

It's critically important...

Now there is also a criticism made by the Opposition, particularly the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, to the way the government treats the Rajya Sabha.
They say quite often critical bills are passed off as money bills when they are quite clearly not money bills, and it's only done to facilitate the easy passage of legislation.
The two that have come to mind immediately are the recent Finance Bill and the Aadhaar Bill.
Now you were the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, when this happened. Do you think that here the Opposition has a good case?

Well, since the matter is before the Supreme Court, I should not comment on it.

But there is certainly no merit in extending what is a money bill to a point when its ceases to be a money bill and has transformed itself to an organisational bill.

In which case, do we need to relook and perhaps rethink, the power of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to decide, what is and what isn't a money bill and the fact that her decision thereafter can't be challenged? Should that be re-looked at?

I don't comment on the power of the honourable Speaker, and in any case this matter is before the Supreme Court, so let us wait.

Let me ask you a slightly different question, not in terms of commenting on the Speaker's power, but should a critical decision that affects not just what sort of legislation it is but more importantly whether the Rajya Sabha can then meaningfully discuss it or vote on it, should that decision be taken jointly both by the Speaker of the Lower House as well as the chairman of the Upper House.

I would not comment on that. Let the political system think about it. We all wait to have some procedures.

But it is something that the political system should think about it...

It is already in the domain of discussion and in the domain of the judiciary... so let's see.


When the Aadhar Bill came to the Rajya Sabha as a money bill


Now, another issue that has attracted attention in recent weeks is the deplorable attendance of nominated MPs like Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha...
PRS has calculated that their percentage attendance in 5 years has been 7 per cent and 5 per cent.
My question is simple: Should this sort of deplorable attendance be tolerated or should it be grounds for terminating the membership of someone who clearly neither has the time nor the inclination to want to be a Rajya Sabha member?

What PRS has aired publicly is something which has been known to the secretariat for a long time, but please pay attention to the procedure.

Any member who wishes to be absent from the functioning of the House puts in a request, and the request is put by the chair to the House and the House approves the absence...

So, each of these people have already had their absence cleared not just by the chair, but through the chair by the House.

Absolutely, how else would they be absent!

The House may be more understanding and willing to allow such nominated members to be absent, but the country feels, that actually, they should be present and even if they don't want to debate at least be sitting.
As I said, Sachin and Rekha are not the only two; this was also proved to be the case with Lata Mangeshkar when she was a member, M F Hussain, Mrinal Sen and several others.
Do we, therefore, need to rethink the sort of people we nominate?
So, that we're more sure that when nominated, they will participate and will make time, rather than treated as an adornment...

What was the rationale of nominations... the thought process behind it was that they would provide an input from a different perspective... into the national law making process...

But they can only do that if they are present and participating...

Precisely... and, therefore, the responsibility for nominating them rests with governments... successive governments...

So, we've had a record of it. There have been excellent nominated members who have participated and are participating very actively even to this day.

They are nominated members who participate on a daily basis, and there are others who have not participated.

So, you're saying a very important thing, you're saying, governments must think very carefully about the sort of people they nominate, so that they have a certain assurance that once nominated the person will participate.

You think, you have to think, what kind of input you require from an individual...

And then choose the individual in accordance with that...


Rather than simply choosing the person because they are a celebrity or they are a star... (he nods).
You're saying YES...



When Tendulkar and Rekha made a rare Rajya Sabha appearance


Let me come to Rajya Sabha TV.
To everyone's surprise and delight, it's a channel that established itself with credibility, with independence, with a certain neutrality and that happened under your charge.
Important colleagues of mine, who are senior journalists like Siddharth Varadarajan, M K Venu, Govind Ethiraj, Bharat Bhushan, have all been anchors.
Now that you're stepping aside, there is a concern in the media world, that perhaps the quality and character of Rajya Sabha TV will change.
Can you be confident that what you set up and established will continue as independent, credible and neutral or does it depend critically on how your successor looks at the channel?

Look, Rajya Sabha TV, was setup by the decision of the Rajya Sabha, and, of course, there is a longer story to it as to why a separate existence became necessary.

So, going back 10 years, when I first stepped into the Rajya Sabha, the then Speaker Mr Somnath Chatterjee had a conversation with me.

The original idea was to have one TV channel in which both would be participants, but at that point, the Rajya Sabha was not willing. So, I said, alright, let me go back and see if I can change views.

It so happened, that over a period of time I did persuade the dissenters to agree, and the channel was established, and the channel was given no command from the chair except that it should be a forum of discussion somewhat along the lines of the PBS.

That's because you were tolerant, and that's because you wanted the channel to operate objectively, independently, thoughtfully and analytically...
What is the assurance, that your successor will give no command and will operate the channel independently, objectively?

I can't comment on that, I'm not a jyotishi (astrologer) that I will tell what will happen tomorrow.

So, the fears that people have about the future of Rajya Sabha TV are not baseless? They could turn out to be very real?

Why should anybody fear the future? You face the future that's all.

If a challenge emerges, face it.

Let me ask you a question about your successor, and I ask it only because many members of the Rajya Sabha are voicing and are concerned about.
Unlike you, he's been a politician all his life. He's been not just a minister, but a president of the BJP.
At a time when the government is concerned and conscious about the way that the Rajya Sabha can check and delay its legislation.
How confident are you that your successor will give the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha a fair hand and a fair say?

Look at the history of Indian Vice Presidents.

They have been politicians. They have been philosophers. They have been educationists. They have been senior most members of the judiciary.

They have all delivered. Nobody has said that they have not delivered.

And you believe that will be true of your successor.

Of course. The job dictates the response.

I want to push you, if I may, with one thing.
Very recently as a minister, your successor once described the prime minister as God's gift to India.
That comment lingers in the minds of many Opposition MPs of the Rajya Sabha. That makes them wary.
What will you tell those MPs, your MPs who are wary of your successor because he has called the prime minister God's gift to India.

Each individual thinks for himself. Each member of Parliament, I have no reason to doubt the capacity to think on everybody's part.

But you are confident that the responsibility of the job when he sits in that chair will change him?

Absolutely. Because that is the only way the job can be done.

So, the requirements of the job will change your successor's thinking, attitude and behaviour, and that's been true of all previous vice presidents as well?

I go by their record. I am not an astrologer, but I go by their record.

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Karan Thapar New Delhi
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