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Insights into Editorial: The case for the Rajya Sabha + Mindmaps on Issues

Insights into Editorial: The case for the Rajya Sabha + Mindmaps on Issues

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19 November 2015

 

Both the government and opposition are bracing for a stormy winter session. Since the new government took over in May 2014, Parliamentary logjams have been common for it. With its minority tag in Rajya Sabha, the government will have to inevitably face obstructions in the upper house. Its minority position in the upper house has prevented it from implementing its legislative agenda. Thus, it appears that the ‘indirectly elected’ Council of States is preventing the government of the day, with a comfortable majority in the ‘directly elected’ House of the People, from implementing its legislative agenda.

  • Voices questioning the power of the Upper House to stall legislation passed by the Lok Sabha have been frequently heard under the present regime.
  • Few months ago, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called for a debate on whether an indirectly elected body could hold back reforms that had the approval of the elected majority in the Lok Sabha.

History:

  • The Upper House of the Indian Parliament traces its direct history to the first bicameral legislature introduced in British India in 1919 as a consequence of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms.
  • The Council of State, as it was called then, was made up of 60 members, 34 of whom were Indian and elected by a narrow and elite group. There were no women in the council and the direct election was conducted under a framework of communal franchise.
  • Immediately before and after Independence, the bicameral question was raised in the Constituent Assembly debates. It was pointed out by some members that Upper House acts as a clog in the wheel of progress. However, our constitution makers decided to retain it.

Do we really need a second chamber?

Arguments in favour and reasons:

  • Our constitution makers decided to have a second chamber not just for the sake of ensuring checks and balances in the system, but also as a mechanism devised to give the constituent States of the Union a say in running the country’s affairs.
  • A permanent Upper House is also a check against any abrupt changes in the composition of the Lower House.
  • It is a much smaller body. A smaller body allows better discussions of key bills.
  • It has continuity. Rajya Sabha is continuously elected every 2 years in a staggered way. Unlike Lok Sabha, it cannot be dissolved by anyone. Thus, it can carry out some administrative functions even when the lower house is dissolved.
  • Rajya Sabha represents the states. To prevent the center from excessively controlling the states, the Rajya Sabha is built to enable the states to voice their concerns better as RS members are directly elected by state legislatures and not by the people.
  • It can check the government. In India, the executive and legislature is somewhat mixed. By design, the government also controls Lok Sabha. This can be dangerous. On the other hand, Rajya Sabha is independent of the government and neither elects it nor is responsible. Thus, it can be more forthright in questioning the PM and others.
  • It provides a second opinion in creation of bills, checks the government & populist leaders.
  • It provides space for experts. Governments in the past have taken advantage of the Upper House to hire lateral talent. Individuals of repute who were either talented or had private sector experience were inducted so they could bring fresh ideas and knowledge in various ministries that desperately needed them.

Arguments against and reasons:

  • Today’s Lok Sabha looks a lot like the Rajya Sabha that was perceived at the time of Independence. The fear of states not having enough representation in Parliament is not true anymore. With our polity becoming increasingly fragmented, regions and states are well represented in the Lower House by various parties that have no national interests but narrow regional agendas.
  • Many regional parties rule states and are here to stay for the long haul. The chief ministers of these states are quite powerful and issues raised by them can be heard around the country. These states actively pursue and protect their interests at the Centre as well as scuttle laws that are inimical to their interests.
  • The Upper House has become a paradise for party fund-raisers, losers in elections, crony capitalists, journalists, retired CEOs and civil servants.
  • Far from being deliberative, the Rajya Sabha also appears to have descended into the same fickleness and passion as the Lok Sabha and has shown a disconcerting trend away from the decorum expected from it.
  • It has become a platform for parties to further their political agenda than to debate and improve legislation. Important legislations that are passed in the Lok Sabha are scuttled in Rajya Sabha for political reasons.
  • Given the fragmented political environment of modern Indian politics, it is more of a hindrance to speedy legislative process that the country desperately requires for economic growth and progress.
  • It has increased the financial burden of the exchequer. The expenditure incurred on the functioning of the Upper House can be reallocated. Savings from elimination of the Upper House can be more gainfully deployed for either building infrastructure or enhancing social development or other meaningful projects.

For governance to improve, India needs to abolish certain institutions, reform others and create new ones. However, it is virtually impossible to abolish the Rajya Sabha without adopting a new Indian Constitution. The bicameral nature of the Indian Parliament is likely to be interpreted as a “basic structure” of the Indian Constitution, rendering it incapable of being amended. Thus, it is much more practical to try and reform the Rajya Sabha than seeking to abolish it.

What reforms are needed?

  • Have members of the Rajya Sabha be directly elected by the citizens of a state. This will reduce cronyism and patronage appointments. This step should be combined with equal representation for each state, so that large states do not dominate the proceedings in the House.
  • The members of the Rajya Sabha elected from a particular state should put the interest of the state above that of the party. Rajya Sabha members elected from a particular state should meet together more often, running across party lines, to see how they can solve the problems of the state.
  • The state legislature that elected them should also question them about their performance.
  • Their seating pattern in the Rajya Sabha should be changed and members elected from a particular state should sit together rather than sitting on the basis of political party groupings.
  • The ruling party must always nominate those who can contribute to making the debates more knowledgeable and who can reflect the cultural and intellectual diversity of India.

 

 

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