Originally Published 2015-12-28 11:31:49 Published on Dec 28, 2015
The Great Rajya Sabha debate!

It is sad that a public discourse should be opened up on the functioning, and the functionality of the Rajya Sabha. The unmentioned and clearly intended suggestions are for the Upper House to be wound up, signalling with it the end of the bicameral constitutional scheme be given a go-by.

It is anybody’s guess why such hints, suggestions and arguments should be thrown up just now. It’s true that the Modi Government was rearing to go on the legislative front, and the veritable hurdles in the day-to-day functioning of the Upper House might have stymied their plans, no end. But to quote statistics and to suggest that the Opposition-controlled Rajya Sabha was to blame for all the nation’s ills is the product of a constitutionally sick and politically autocratic mind and mind-set. It needed to be eschewed and clipped away at the budding stage, if India were not to repeat an emergency-kind experience, if not emergency itself, all over again.

Anyway, this is not the first time that even the Modi Government is facing such a scenario. In the recent past, Parliament had lost sessions in both Houses, not because the Opposition stalled it unilaterally. On many an occasion, the Prime Minister, as the responsible leader of the nation and of the Government (if not of the ruling BJP and the party-led coalition), would not want to respond to important queries on issues of critical importance to the nation’s character and constitutional identity.

It’s also true that whoever has been in power, the Government has been losing precious parliamentary hours, session and after session, year after year, almost since the commencement of the ‘economic reforms’. On most of those occasions, the official Opposition, PM Modi’s BJP included, did not even have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, for them to have shouted the House out of business, days after days, for weeks after weeks. ‘Hindutva’ issues like Ayodhya and uniform civil code, the ‘Sukh Ram affair’, the ‘Jain hawala scam’ and a host of others require mention.

There was an occasion when the Lok Sabha had to pass the entire budget under the ‘guillotine’ format, with no debate, no disclosures. It was because the (BJP) Opposition of the day would not allow the House to function, through the two phases of the Budget session, running on to weeks. To consider that the Lower House alone is constitutionally authorised to clear all finance bills (even against the Rajya Sabha’s opposition) should go to prove the importance the Budget has in the Legislature’s official business.

To suggest that the present-day Opposition alone is to blame for the deteriorating health of parliamentary procedures of the country is a travesty of truth, to say the least. Every party, leader and almost every individual member has contributed to the slide. Together, and together alone can they reverse the trend. The isolationist blame-game of the present-kind, which does not also is against the proponent-presented facts and circumstances of the larger case and issues, would only aggravate the grievances of the Congress(-led) Opposition, and hence the grief of parliamentary practices.

Constitutional watch-dog

Un-understood by most and unacknowledged by all, the Upper House of Parliament has been performing the duty of a constitutional watch-dog, and by its very existence and presence. It was more so on occasions like the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency of the Seventies, when even the Judiciary as the customary watch-dog of the Constitution pleaded helplessness. Less said about the President of the time, the late Fakruddin Ali Ahmed, coming up with the Emergency proclamation, based entirely on the fancy of someone in authority, and well before the Union Cabinet had (unanimously) recommended it, should speak volumes. The Rajya Sabha would have thus become the sole dampener, if one was needed.

Using the powers under the Emergency, the Government of the day did extend the life of the Lok Sabha, it could have also dissolved the House, no political or judicial questions asked – or, answered – and also found legitimised justification and not holding fresh, nation-wide elections. Yet, for similarly getting rid of the Rajya Sabha so very completely would have taken six long years, getting the biennial nature of elections to the Upper House. Unexplained as such, it was possibly an inherent safety-valve that the Founding Fathers had built in, into the constitutional scheme.

In this, the Upper House of Parliament discharges an entirely different functionality that the Constitution does not entrust with Upper Houses in State Legislatures, where a bicameral scheme exists. States like Tamil Nadu got away with the Legislative Council because – and, only because – then Chief Minister, the late M G Ramachandran, found the Opposition DMK-dominated Upper House, a thorn in his politico-administrative flesh.

A popular and populist leader who acted mostly by political instinct, flowing from social commitment, than by any rule-book, he had no use for the Upper House, when it would not let him have his way. It may have also been more so because in his DMK leader-turned-rival and former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, MGR had a matchless parliamentarian who could throw the rule-book and precedents at will, and also offer unimpeachable arguments.

In MGR’s time, an obliging Government party in power at the Centre was helpful in having the required resolution, passed by the two Houses of Parliament. It is another matter that traditionally, the Centre has not contested or contradicted recommendations of State Legislatures and Governments in such matters. After all, the Centre-State relations and division of their powers and status have been getting increasingly defined and refined, over the past decades after Independence.

Political, not constitutional

The situation in the current Rajya Sabha context might be entirely different. So is the role of the Upper House of Parliament. Dissolving the Rajya Sabha, or dis-empowering the Upper House, is a challenge to the constitutional scheme. In the nation’s Legislatures at the State-level, the Upper House does not play the kind of role the Rajya Sabha could play in ‘emergency-like’ situations. The role, constitutionally, taken over by the Centre and the two Houses of Parliament, even when there is a bicameral State Legislature, and the State Assembly has been dissolved.

The decision to disrupt Rajya Sabha proceedings is political, not constitutional. The solution to the problem, too, should be found through political means. It’s in the political field. The Rajya Sabha’s membership keeps changing with the change in the composition of State Assemblies, if only over a six-year period, and those now propagating disempowerment and/or dissolution of the Upper House could well be around then, again, to take their hideous/heinous agenda forward.

Again, the constitutional, democratic scheme provides the internal guarantees and inherent protection, too. A bicameral Legislature at the national-level, it could be safely argued, is a ‘Basic Structure’ of the Constitution, like ‘Judicial Review’, as indicated by the Supreme Court in the ‘Keshavananda Bharati case’ (1974). Constitutionally, it would require a two-thirds majority, and in both Houses. By tradition and otherwise, any move to annul the Upper House would also require approval by half the number of State Legislatures in the country at the time.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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