Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Is the Rajya Sabha essential?

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 that the Indian National Congress opposed vehemently.
Immediately before and after Independence, the bicameral question was raised in the Constituent Assembly debates. Professor Shibban Lal Saksena represented the position against a bicameral legislature thus: “In this motion, we have been asked to vote for two Houses, the Lower House and the Upper House. I wish to point out that our experience has been that the Upper House acts as a clog in the wheel of progress. I think that everywhere in the world the experience about Upper Houses has been the same. It has always acted as a sort of hindrance to quick progress.”
Many years later, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, speaking as the first chairman of the Rajya Sabha, said, “There is a general impression that this House cannot make or unmake governments and, therefore, it is a superfluous body. But there are functions, which a revising chamber can fulfil fruitfully. Parliament is not only a legislative but a deliberative body. So far as its deliberative functions are concerned, it will be open to us to make very valuable contributions, and it will depend on our work whether we justify this two chamber system, which is now an integral part of our Constitution.”
Even though some ancient civilizations had a bicameral legislature, the modern version can be traced to estates of the realm in medieval Europe: think of it as a European caste system with the clergy, nobility and commoners representing the three estates. During the French Revolution, many arguments for and against a bicameral system were made. Most modern democracies that have a bicameral legislature do so on the grounds of a federal polity. The role of the Upper House is to be a deliberative body that would balance what James Madison, the author of the Federalist Papers, called “fickleness and passion” of an elected Lower House. The relative size, scope and power of the two Houses are different in different countries. The US Senate has two senators from each state with the Senate holding equal power to the House of Representatives. A (very large) House of Lords in the UK has an advisory role to the House of Commons.
India’s Rajya Sabha has equal powers to the Lok Sabha except for money bills, where it has no jurisdiction. It is a 250-member body, 12 of whom are appointed from the field of art, literature, science and social services. Other members are elected by an electoral college made up of state legislators.
Is the Rajya Sabha necessary today?
The contemporary argument against it comes from two primary angles. The first one suggests that a Lok Sabha that has representation from several regional parties more than adequately represents a federal country. The recent reversal on the land acquisition ordinance is an example of this federal character of the Lok Sabha in practice. The second argument charges that the Rajya Sabha has become a haven for losers in elections, crony capitalists, compromised journalists and party fundraisers. Far from being deliberative, the Rajya Sabha 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.
Now for the reality check. 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. Even if this were to be tested, it would be ensnared in a judicial process for a very long time. It is much more practical to try and reform the Rajya Sabha than seeking to abolish it.
One useful reform step would be to 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 (say, five members) so that large states do not dominate the proceedings in the House. This streamlined Rajya Sabha should remain deliberative, but there should be deadlines set for responding to bills initiated in the Lok Sabha.
The Rajya Sabha is here to stay. It is our responsibility to make it an effective and time-bound contributor to India’s parliamentary system.
Only then will India be able to make (progress) haste, slowly.
P.S. “Men are mortal. So are ideas. An idea needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Otherwise both will wither and die,” said B.R. Ambedkar, the principal author of India’s constitution.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs.