By Devender Singh Aswal
As is customary, both the Houses of Parliament present, separately, their Motion of Thanks to the President conveying their deep gratitude for delivering an address to both the Houses assembled together. This year, the address took place on 31 January, 2022, preceding the presentation of the Union Budget 2022-23. Under Article 87(1), an obligation is cast on the President to address both the Houses of Parliament assembled together and inform them of the causes of its summons at the commencement of the first session after each general election to the Lok Sabha and at the commencement of the first session each year. Discussions take place in both the Houses on the Motion of Thanks moved by a member and seconded by another member. The members who table the Motion of Thanks are chosen, as an established practice, by the Prime Minister as great importance is attached to the discussions which cover a very wide gamut of issues confronting the nation forming part of the Presidential Address or which, in the view of the Opposition, escaped inclusion.
The Presidential Address is known as the ‘State of Union Address’, a term which gained currency from the US Congress where the President comes to the House of Representatives and delivers the state of Union Address which is an occasion of pomp and ceremony and much more. The US President being the fount of executive power, delivers his own address and it was on one such occasion that President Kennedy made a glowing reference to the statesmanship of Nehru and how he was inspired by his worldview. In the USA, the practice was started by George Washington, the first President, discontinued by the second President Thomas Jefferson for being ‘too monarchical’ and restarted by Woodrow Wilson in 1913. In England, the Address is delivered by the Monarch and is known as the ‘Speech from the Throne’. The speech is prepared by the Council of Ministers and delivered to the members of Parliament assembled together in the House of Lords. In India, the practice owes its origin to the GoI Act 1919, under which the Governor General addressed both the Houses of Parliament in 1921. The President of India, as constitutional obligation, informs the members about the various programmes and priorities of his Government in almost an hour long speech. It is rare that the President sends back the speech to be read by him to his Council of Ministers for reconsideration, being a constitutional head. However, the Address prepared by the Government contains the current state of affairs of the nation and gives a great opportunity to the political parties in Parliament to arraign the Government for its acts of omission and commission. Adequate time is allocated for discussion so that all sides of the House participate in the debate. Usually, beginning from the First Lok Sabha till date, on an average, twelve hours are allocated for discussion on the Motion of Thanks. The First Lok Sabha spent the maximum sixteen hours and the Tenth Lok Sabha fourteen hours.
The key speakers on the Motion of Thanks are chosen very advisedly by the political parties, especially the ruling party and the main opposition, the principle players in the tug of war. The discussion on the Motion this year was initiated by Harish Dwividi of BJP, a second term member representing Basti parliamentary constituency, UP, which is in election mode. His focus was on good governance given by Yogi Government under the leadership of the Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi, the first speaker from the opposition, made a sharp stinging attack on the Government. He referred to the ‘yawning gulf’ between the rich and the poor, the creation of monopolies and tremendous concentration of wealth by a few, destruction of informal sector, job losses and joblessness, weakening of link between the people and languages, weakening of institutions and erosion of the idea of ‘the Union of States’, that is India. Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress was seen at her combative best but also criticised for imputing motive to the Chair. The PM replied to the debate for almost one hour and a half, elaborating on the address of the President and the spectacular performance of his Government under the trying times of the pandemic. He quoted Nehru to underline the importance of responsibilities of the citizens in a democracy. When interrupted in between by Adhir Ranjan Chadhury of the Congress, the PM at times yielded but made light hearted banter. The PM spoke at length, demolishing the charges hurled at his Government and scorned the conduct of the principal opposition. The Motion of Thanks was discussed for over twelve hours from second to seventh February. The tone and tenor, and the cut and thrust of the debate were punctuated by exchange of pillories and panegyrics between the treasury and the benches opposite. The lines of Shakespeare flashed across the mind, ‘Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail/And say there is no sin but to be rich;/And being rich, my virtue then shall be/To say, there is no vice but beggary’. The amendments were rejected by the House and the Motion was adopted by voice vote.
The Rajya Sabha debated the Motion simultaneously for almost eleven hours and the PM replied to the debates. There were thought provoking speeches in the Rajya Sabha. Mallikarjun Kharge, the Leader of the Opposition made a blistering attack but created some uneasiness within his party speakers on the Motion as he consumed their time for speaking for an hour as against the allotted time of half an hour. Prof Ram Gopal Yadav, Samajwadi Party, said he supports the Motion as a salutary parliamentary custom but with a heavy heart. He alluded to the role of frontline workers during the pandemic and heaped praised on them but lamented that the Presidential Address prepared by the Mantri Parishad did not reflect the true state of the republic. Manoj Jha of RJD underlined the need for making the Address non-partisan and ‘a true blueprint of the conditions and direction of the country’. He recalled that Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of the Republic had delivered the first Presidential Address on 31 January, 1950. He also mentioned that this is a practice embedded in the GoI Act, 1919 and a British legacy and hinted that only broad minded people can have an all encompassing and fair approach. In his speech of over one hour and twenty-six minutes, the PM, while explaining the policies and priorities of his Government touched in the Presidential address, mounted a virulent attack on the Congress and referred to the dithering of Nehru in the belated liberation of Goa. But, ending his speech, the PM quoted a hymn of the Rig Veda which counsels, ‘talk together and work together in harmony’. The Congress was apparently so incensed by the speech of the PM that it staged a walk out in protest. The Motion was carried by voice vote and adopted without Amendment. There have been occasions in the past when the Motion of Thanks was passed by the Rajya Sabha with amendments. The Congress in 1980, United Front Government in 1989 and the NDA Government in 2001, 2015 and 2016 faced this unusual situation as they did not command majority in the Rajya Sabha. In recent years, the last debate on the Motion of Thanks was so animated and fierce – holding diametrically opposite views. And yet, the need for ‘talking together and working in harmony’ by the PM is enthusing. There is, of course, an imperative need for conversation between us, ‘We, the People’, who make it ‘the Union of States’ and a sovereign democratic republic.
(The author is ex Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, and a member of the Delhi Bar Council. The views expressed are personal.)