Why Rajya Sabha is essential for Indian democracy and saving it is not a mission impossible

The Upper House of Parliament has, for long, kept the bicameral edifice of the country functioning and flourishing. Just like its distinctiv...

The Upper House of Parliament has, for long, kept the bicameral edifice of the country functioning and flourishing. Just like its distinctive three-tiered chamber, the Rajya Sabha has over the years seen some of the finest minds of India congregate and confabulate.

But now as 13 Rajya Sabha seats went to elections, existential questions arise about the dilution of the Upper House and its continuing relevance. The larger issue is the perils of a single ruling party, like the BJP, dominating both Houses.

Meanwhile, the BJP won both the Rajya Sabha seats from Assam in the election to the Upper House held on Thursday. With this, the party’s tally in the Rajya Sabha touched the 100 mark — the first party to do so since 1988. Staking out a broader battlefield for the coming Lok Sabha Polls, the BJP is looking to push through its agenda and bills relentlessly in the interim.

The Rajya Sabha. ANI

The Congress numbers have shrivelled to such an extent the party could lose its status of Leader of Opposition by July this year, when another round of biennial elections for the Upper House will be held. It needs a minimum of 25 seats to hold that position.

Thirteen seats were up for grabs including five in Punjab followed by three in Kerala, two in Assam and one each in Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Tripura.

The rationale of a second House has been regularly debated with critics saying that since Lok Sabha MPs are directly elected they represent the mandate of the people.

The bicameral system has certain intrinsic benefits.

The Rajya Sabha as the second and permanent Chamber is a revisionary house for laws and bills, offers checks and balances for greater executive accountability and is a platform for diverse talent and expertise.

Those opposed to the idea of a second chamber argue that sending Bills to Rajya Sabha only delayed the legislative process.

But, I believe, bicameralism is essential for a federal constitution as the Rajya Sabha also acts as a means to institutionalise the principles of power-sharing between the Centre and states.

There is a crucial point here. When the ruling dispensation has a brute majority in the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha can prevent the government of the day exercising authoritarianism.

Parliament is not merely a legislative body but also a deliberative one which enables the members to debate major issues of public importance.

And with the Indian polity becoming increasingly complex, the Rajya Sabha’s importance has only increased with time.

Women, religious, ethnic and linguistic minority groups are not adequately represented in the Lok Sabha (due to first past the post-election system).

Federal structures in countries like the US, Australia provide equal representation to all states in their upper houses. Unlike India, where states are represented proportionally to their relative populace.

Rajya Sabha chairman M Venkaiah Naidu

For example, the number of seats allocated in the Rajya Sabha to Uttar Pradesh alone is significantly higher than that of combined north-eastern states.

In some cases, ordinary bills are being passed in the form of a Money Bill, circumventing the Rajya Sabha and giving rise to the question about the very efficacy of the upper house of Parliament. This can be seen recently in the controversy related to the Aadhaar Act.

In fact, I believe the Money Bill became an instrument of subtle subversion. It was a clever sleight of hand to push proposals through, which suited the party with adequate numbers.

My point gets corroborated when speaking in the Rajya Sabha in 2019, former prime minister Manmohan Singh said, “The role of the Upper House must not be undermined, and it should be allowed more time to study and debate Bills.”

“In the 16th Lok Sabha, only 25% Bills were referred to committees as compared to 15th and 14th LS. Regardless of what the other House does, it is crucial for our House to form select committees to ensure Bills received go through detailed scrutiny,” Singh had then said.

He was referring to the Modi government's clever strategy of using a constitutional provision — the money bill — to push through key proposals. This move was used by the Modi government in 2017, as the combined Opposition in the Rajya Sabha outweighed the ruling alliance.

What needs to be further understood is that a money bill can only be introduced in the Lok Sabha. This means the Opposition doesn’t get to sit on it for long in any case.

Unlike general bills, a “money bill” has to be related to matters of public finance. This broadly means taxes, spending or borrowing of the government, according to Article 110 of the Constitution.

When anything in the form of a money bill comes to the Rajya Sabha, it does have the right to recommend changes. But, such recommended changes aren’t binding. If the lower house, where the BJP obviously has the majority, rejects Rajya Sabha’s suggestions on a money bill, the bill then is automatically passed. This provision follows the Commonwealth parliamentary system.

I also felt the manner in which the “domicile” status clause was amended in 2003 left a lot to be desired. In simple terms, it means a person who does not belong to a state can contest the Rajya Sabha elections from that state of which they are neither a resident nor a domicile.

This was a path used by any ruling party to get some of their defeated candidates in the Lok Sabha election, to get elected in the Rajya Sabha.

Another red flag is the sincerity of nominated members being questioned in many cases. Nominations are made by the government to acknowledge either the celebrity status of some icons or to gratify influencers.

After getting nominated, these members rarely participate in the working of the House. For example, Sachin Tendulkar was appointed in 2012 and the House had met 348 days since then, but his attendance was a meagre 24 days.

File image of Sachin Tendulkar.

Actress Rekha attended for 18 days. Further, Rekha did not attend more than a single day in any session since her nomination in 2012, as per available data.

To preserve the federal character of Rajya Sabha, the following steps need to be taken:

1.     Rajya Sabha members be directly elected by the citizens of a state.

2.     This would reduce cronyism and patronage appointments.

3.     A federal arrangement can be devised to enable equal representation for each state.

4.     Large states should not dominate the proceedings in the House.

5.     Better procedure of nomination to improve the quality of discussion in the House.

Cut to the present, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the 72 retiring Rajya Sabha members: “This is a farewell. But as they say in Bengali, ‘Ami aaschi’ or in Gujarati, 'Aao jo'... 'come again'. That's what we would want to tell them (Rajya Sabha members who are retiring) — 'Come again'. When such experienced members leave, the nation... the House feels a vacuum. Sometimes, there is more value for experience than knowledge.”

Experience indeed holds its own. And that is precisely where the Rajya Sabha fits in. It is a forum where the wise offer solutions. It is a place which holds the light.

The author is CEO of nnis. Views expressed are personal.

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