There is little gainsaying to point out that ever since the Modi Government has come into power, the number game in the Rajya Sabha is creating hurdles for the ruling dispensation. The BJP with modest 48 members as against 68 of Congress is in hopeless minority in the upper House.
Previously there used to be only whispering on this. But in March 2015, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, himself the Leader of the Upper House, first raked up the bogey of obstructionist after government realised the Congress would not let the government pass the legislative drafts so easily. “In fact, if we had numbers in the Rajya Sabha, even the controversial Land Bill would have been an Act by now as the Lok Sabha had passed the Bill once during budget session of Parliament in March 2015,” says a BJP MP. BJP’s desperation in raking up the issue of ‘importance’ of the Rajya Sabha or the issue of ‘balance’ of power between the two Houses of Parliament is understandable. Many just wonder at the plot of the conflict. Should Rajya Sabha then play second fiddle to the Lok Sabha?
Experts say the ‘Salisbury convention’ of the United Kingdom – based on which Bharateeya parliamentary system is based- established cherished norms that the elected government, which is sustained by the elected House (i.e House equivalent to Lok Sabha in Bharat) must have the last word.
In 1945 the Labour Party came to power with a large majority. Despite the fact that the Lords was still dominated by Conservatives, there was a little disagreement between the two chambers. The Salisbury convention established norms that the House of Lords (on which Bharateeya Rajya Sabha is essentially modeled), “do not reject any legislation that has been supported by the electorate”. Thus the House of Lords does not oppose at second reading any government bill which has been outlined in the government party’s manifesto at the previous general election.
However, there would be still a catch as unlike in UK, Bharateeya political parties’ manifesto is seldom taken seriously and is never in details in terms of explanation of a proposed law or Bill.
But there’s yet another school of argument. They say bicameralism mechanism or two-House norms now either has to change or at least get diluted. “I am not saying Rajya Sabha is obstructionist. The earlier definition and powers of the primacy of the legislature or bicameralism was based on the conviction that the executive or the elected House should not overpower the system. But in today’s post-liberalisation economy, the executive (the government) often has to take hard measures or bitter pills. The government of the day needs adequate power and liberty to push reforms.
Biju Janata Dal MP, Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, almost echoed the debate and wrote in a widely read blog, “….Governance in India, like Italy and others earlier, is caught in a logjam
of far too many checks and not
enough balance. Nowhere else in
the world are there as many legislative checks against the popular mandate
of the electorate.”
Panda’s article has also provoked angry reactions from six opposition parties and their members have moved a privilege motion against Panda saying he has “violated” the privileges, powers and immunities of the House.
Earlier, the Congress member Madhusudhan Mistry has also moved a privilege motion against Jaitley saying the Minister’s statement “creates an impression in the minds of the people in public, also in media that Rajya Sabha has no authority.
Jaitley for his part as a lawyer argued eloquently and said, “…the legislation approval is becoming extremely challenging …this (obstructionism) has slowed down the process of legislation approval”.
BJP chief Amit Shah also has endorsed him. In a media interview Shah has said, “In a democratic republic, the House of the People should have supremacy. Every law for development of the country — and its people endorsed the House of People—gets stuck in the Upper House. This is not good for the country”.
Taking the clock back down the memory lane, the British Parliament had faced these debates decades back. “In modern times the power to delay (by the upper House) has been used more as a threat to ensure that the lower chamber takes the upper chamber’s revising role seriously,” commented J M Davies, Clerk of the Parliaments, House of Lords.
The conventional wisdom backing the ‘mandate doctrine’—that is more power for the “directly elected House” is based on the argument that while the respect for legislature has to be maintained the government of the day deserves certain powers to push reforms strategies.
But the conflict between two Houses of Parliament in Bharateeya context was understood well by the founding fathers of Bharateeya Constitution. They wanted a complimentary role for each other.
But as expected opposition members differ. “Jaitley is only trying to hoodwink the real issue of accountability and parliamentary balance. If his logic is taken in then the President of India would have no power and considered lower in hierarchy to the Lok Sabha,” says CPI MP D Raja.
Powers of Rajya Sabha
This Act provided safeguards against the misuse of Emergency provisions and guaranteed the right to media to report freely the proceedings of Parliament and State Legislatures.
Congress MP Madhusudhan Mistry says, “Where’s the debate when we all know both the Houses enjoy equal freedom and equal status”. Senior parliamentarian Sharad Yadav of JD (U) sums it up well. “The Rajya Sabha is a balancing platform. In 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi had numbers in Lok Sabha, opposition was more powerful in Rajya Sabha. Otherwise things can often go havoc”.
However, Jaitley has stood by his ground. “It is time we set up conventions as the British did to ensure we get legislative sanctions,” he said.
States have their own stories
In states, the ‘Upper’ House is called Legislative Council. In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal wants creation of a Vidhan Parishad (legislative council) while opposition Congress, which is determined to safeguard the honour of Rajya Sabha, is opposed to the idea. Assam and West Bengal have lately favoured second chambers.
“What we really achieve by the existence of this second chamber (Rajya Sabha) is only an instrument by which we delay action which might be hastily conceived, and we also give an opportunity, perhaps, to seasoned people who may not be in the thickest of the political fray, but who might be willing to participate in the debate….I think, on the whole, the balance of consideration is in favour of having such a chamber,” N Gopalaswami Ayyangar had said during debate in the Constituent assembly.
Hope Ayyangar’s words turn prophetic and we get more debates and elderly discussion the Upper House rather than a partisan obstructions.
(The author is a Special Representative with The Statesman and author of new e-book ‘Rainbows and Misty Sky: Windows to North East India’)