More than a referee? Vice President Jagdeep Dhankar prying on House committees

The actions of the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha could impede the independent functioning of the parliamentary committees

Bharat Bhushan

Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and Vice President (VP) of India Jagdeep Dhankar has done something unusual. In an unprecedented move, he has appointed eight officers from his personal office to 12 parliamentary standing committees and eight departmental committees of the Upper House, ostensible to ‘assist’ them. None of the committees had sought any assistance from his personal office.

Four officers are from the VP’s staff — Officer on Special Duty (OSD) Rajesh N Naik, Private Secretary (PS) Sujeet Kumar, Additional Private Secretary Sanjay Verma, and OSD Abbhudoy Singh Shekhawat — and four from the Rajya Sabha Chairman’s office — his OSDs Akhil Choudhary, Dinesh D, Kaustubh Sudhakar Bhalekar, and PS Aditi Chaudhary. Over a few tweets between June 6 and 7, 2021, Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra identifies Shekhawat as Dhankar’s brother-in-law’s son, and Choudhary as a close relation of his.  Both these officers were on Dhankar’s staff as Governor as well. He has not yet attached the outsiders to the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.

Dhankar’s appointments are particularly egregious because they are potentially violative of the institutional integrity of the parliamentary committee system which is based on in-camera proceedings and strict confidentiality. The Chairman of every parliamentary standing committee and departmental committee makes it clear right at the beginning that all meetings are confidential till the time the report of the committee is finalised, and placed before Parliament. It is because confidentiality is built into the parliamentary committee system in India that unlike the United States, they do not hold open hearings. The role of the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha is to refer issues, mostly Bills, to a designated parliamentary committee which after due deliberations among the MPs who are its members, presents its report first to the Chairman, and then to the House.

Were his appointees to the committees to submit a written report to the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, after attending each meeting, it would violate confidentiality. Also, what would be reported back to the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha would not have yet been given even to the Chairman of the parliamentary committee.

The question, therefore, is: what would be the purpose of such information becoming available to the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha before the parliamentary committee has heard all evidence, listened to all stakeholders summoned, and digested the information? There is no provision for the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha to advise the parliamentary committee on the Bill or departmental issue before it. Indeed, the practice up to now has been that even the Secretary General of Rajya Sabha does not attend parliamentary committee meetings to maintain their independence, as he will be the eventual repository of the committees’ reports. Normally, a joint secretary-level officer from the Rajya Sabha Secretariat is sent to the meetings.

Considering this, the inevitable conclusion is that the appointment of his office staff to the parliamentary committees opens the possibility of Dhankar putting informal pressure on the chairpersons of the parliamentary committees. If the Chairman of Rajya Sabha wanted only information about the progress of a particular committee’s deliberations, he could have got it from either the Secretary General of the Upper House or directly from the chairperson of the parliamentary committee. The creation of a parallel channel of information further undermines the confidential functioning of these committees as it could open room for the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha to informally monitor the activities of the MPs who are its members.

It is also unclear where this idea originated. The Union government does not need the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha to brief it on the parliamentary committees. The progress or activities of a committee can be asked for directly by the Parliamentary Affairs Minister who in turn can brief the Prime Minister or others in the government. No wonder then that the appointments have been described as ‘unusual’ and an attempt at ‘institutional subversion’ by those well-versed in the functioning of Parliament.

P Sreedharan, former Lok Sabha Secretary General, told the media, “This is unusual because these officers are appointed as personal staff in the Hon’ble Vice President’s office while there is a separate branch that deals with secretarial assistance to the House panels.” Furthermore, officers from the Rajya Sabha secretariat chosen to assist the committee, are selected based on their skill and domain knowledge. Whereas the persons chosen by Dhankar, who are on his personal staff and close to him, may not have this domain knowledge.

Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has described the appointments as “unprecedented” and Dhankar’s explanation as “inappropriate”. Congress leader Manish Tewari pointed to the incorrectness in procedure on Twitter, saying, “VP is Chairperson of Council of States Ex-officio. He is not a Member of (the) House like (the) Vice Chairperson or Panel of Vice Chairpersons. How can he appoint personal staff on Parliamentary Standing Committees? Would this not tantamount to institutional subversion?” The Congress has announced that it would formally raise this issue with the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.

It appears that Dhankar is not happy with his job description as a referee in the Rajya Sabha. He wants to influence the game. His actions could impede the independent functioning of the parliamentary committees as each member would now look over their shoulder aware that ‘Big Brother’ could be watching their every intervention in the committee.