By the looks of it, the winter session of Parliament is headed down the same way as the Monsoon Session. Frost seems to be gathering on government-opposition relations and the brief thaw that Modi’s Chai pe Charcha with Gandhis had heralded has been subsumed by cold, icy winds blowing in from the National Herald case. The opposition has shown marked unity in bringing the government down to its knees. And mind it, this is no ordinary government- it was elected with a thumping majority a little over 18 months ago. In these circumstances, to see government business brought to a standstill makes one wonder whether it is the opposition to blame for the mischief-mongering or the government for its inability to take the opposition along. The devil unfortunately lies in the numbers. In the Lok Sabha, the government has an overwhelming majority (NDA- 337/543)over the opposition (which is why the Lok sabha is able to transact business inspite of the din created by the opposition). It is only in the Rajya Sabha, where the government is in a pathetic minority (NDA-63/242), that the government is unable to push through its agenda. Unlike the Lok Sabha, which is composed of members elected by the public, the Rajya Sabha is indirectly elected by state legislatures. The question therefore to ask is, how is it that an unelected house being allowed to run roghshod over a subject which has been approved by an elected house- something that has been articulated by Arun Jaitley and Jay Panda recently.
The Rajya Sabha owes its existence to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919, which established a Council of States alongside an Indian Legislative Assembly. The Government of India Act, 1935 , which eventually went on to become a framework for the Indian Constitution, formalized the Council of States, calling for 60% representation from British India and 40% from the Princely States. The constituent At the time of independence, there were heated debates on retaining the Upper house. However, it was felt that a Federal model would suit India best and hence it was decided to retain the Council of States. The main reason why the Council of States was retained was brilliantly stated by Gopalaswami Ayyangar. He said “the Upper House can act as an ‘instrument’ to delay action on a hastily-conceived decision, through debates and discussions by ‘seasoned people with an amount of learning and importance’, something that we do not ordinarily associate with a House of the People”. The Constitution places the Lok Sabha on a higher pedestal than the Rajya Sabha, e.g. Rajya Sabha cannot obstruct Money Bills, it cannot bring a no-confidence motion against the Union government etc. However, for all practical purposes, the Rajya Sabha serves as the Lok Sabha’s equal. Rajya Sabha members reflect the political realities of the states from where members are nominated, e.g. 15 of the 31 members from UP currently belong to Samajwadi party. Also, 1/3rd of Rajya Sabha members retire every 2 years in order to express changes in political realities, if any.
Unfortunately, recently, instead of serving as the voice of reason, and more importantly the voice of the states, Rajya Sabha has been used to pander to the agenda of the parties that dominate it. Statistics clearly point towards it. For the monsoon session, while the productivity of the NDA dominated Lok Sabha was a meagre 48%, the productivity of Opposition dominated Rajya Sabha was a measly 9%. In light of this, and keeping in mind the general tendency of Indian politics to become more ‘federalized’ (as against the centre-heavy Federal model which was established by the constiuent assembly), should we look at reforming the Rajya Sabha. Also, Mr. Ayyangar’s statement that the Upper house would be composed of ‘seasoned people with an amount of learning and importance’ no longer holds ground as most of Rajya Sabha members are seasoned politicians, with some of them choosing the Rajya Sabha route, following their rout in Lok Sabha elections. Finally, the membership of Rajya Sabha is biased in favour of more populated states like UP, West Bengal etc. This puts smaller states like Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim etc. at a disadvantage both in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. In light of all this, The following points deserve to be debated-
- Should the Rajya Sabha’s veto powers to matters relating to Union government be curbed?
To have an unelected house reject decisions of elected representatives of people is nothing short of murder of democracy. Instead of acting as a pillar of support, the Rajya Sabha is acting as a destabilizing agent in governance.
- Should the Rajya Sabha exclusively debate matters pertaining to the States and State-Union relations?
Rajya Sabha should not be entitled to make decisions that impact the functioning of the Union government. Its agenda must be limited to discussing state matters, Union-State relationships and drawing the Union government’s attention on matters concerning the states.
- Should the Rajya Sabha be constituted such that each state enjoys the same strength in terms of number of members it nominates to the Rajya Sabha?
The Lok Sabha is reflective of the political realities of the country. Accordingly, UP sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha as against Mizoram, which sends 1 member. In the Rajya Sabha too, UP sends 31 members as against Mizoram, which sends 1. Given this double whammy, it is not surprising that matters concerning smaller states seldom get meaningful hearing or discussion in the Indian Parliament. No doubt that smaller states resent the power that lies with the larger states.
Rajya Sabha must be reformed if the Indian polity is to continue to function and meet people’s expectations. Our constitution makers had framed a flexible constitution so that changes could be made from time to time, reflecting realities of the era. Ayyangar’s reasons that ultimately led to the establishment of Rajya Sabha are no longer valid, and this has been clear for some time now. Why then must a process of consultation not be started to amend the role of Rajya Sabha to make it more relevant, more contemporary and most importantly to prevent it from being exploited as a tool for politicking.Jay Panda and Arun Jaitley had hit bulls’ eye when they asked for reforms to be made urgently. Sadly, the government’s lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha would mean that reforms can never see light of the day. How ironic!