Time Has Come To Reform The Rajya Sabha
Rajya Sabha reforms have now become inevitable. Rising above calculations of political profit-loss, there will have to be constitutional amendments in line with the basic sentiments of federalism and parliamentary democracy.
With the elections for the President and Vice-President, and the government’s ignominious defeat on the amendments to the bill for National Commission for Backward Classes due to the absence of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members, the Rajya Sabha has made more than its share in headlines. Since Narendra Modi received the sweeping majority in the 2014 elections, the upper house of the Parliament has been on constant collision course with Lok Sabha.
The Rajya Sabha has equal rights to make a law and amend the Constitution, as the Lok Sabha, but BJP is not in majority in the former. Although, according to the article 108 of the Constitution, in the event of a dispute on a law between the two houses, the President can convene a joint session. Only money bills are out of bounds for Lok Sabha. That is why the Narendra Modi government presented the Aadhar Bill as a money bill so that it could be saved from the disruption in Rajya Sabha, but it won’t be possible to do this with every bill.
So, can any government that has obtained such a powerful mandate be stopped from working due to interference from, and disruption in administration of, the Rajya Sabha? The Modi government presented a Constitution Amendment Bill to create a National Backward Classes Commission on the lines of National Scheduled Castes Commission and National Scheduled Tribe Commission, under Article 338 and 338 (A) of the Constitution.
Under Article 340 of the Constitution, the President has the right to make a backward classes commission, but the rank, or level, of that commission is not the same as that of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes national commissions. Probably, many do not even know that while many tribes have been included under ‘backward classes’ by mistake, many castes yearn to be included in it. But Digvijaya Singh of Congress, through force of numbers, has effected such amendments to the bill in the Rajya Sabha, that the Backward Class Commission cannot be created in the desired form.
Was the Congress afraid that the passing of the amendment bill would politically benefit the BJP? Perhaps it forgot that this could backfire on the BJP and it could be left behind in attempts to increase its base amongst the backward classes.
The government will now have to repeat the same exercise again. The amendment bill will have to be resubmitted in the Lok Sabha and then it will have to be sent back to the Rajya Sabha.
The Rajya Sabha should not forget that it is not an assembly elected directly by the people and it should not be adopting a path of confrontation with the Lok Sabha. By doing this, it is not only turning away from its original responsibilities, it also runs the risk of becoming a target of the people’s ire. When the Constitution was written, the Rajya Sabha was given the dignified position of the upper house. It was expected thus, that by being above party politics, it would work to improve the bills through debate and preserve the federal interests of the states, and not destroy progressive bills like the one for backward classes.
If the Rajya Sabha creates a blockage, then it will strike on its own dignity. The leader of the opposition, Ghulam Nabi Azad, very rightly said in the Rajya Sabha , “No one should try to weaken the house”. But it seems that his own party, Congress, itself, is doing this. The Rajya Sabha members should also not forget that the house runs with the taxes paid by the public and live broadcast of the proceedings of the house gives the public a chance to watch their actions closely. The behaviour of the members in the Rajya Sabha not only contributes to the public opinion regarding the Parliament but the political parties also get evaluated by the public. This, in turn, has far-reaching impact to the elections of the other house.
Although, the wise men and women who wrote our Constitution followed the British parliamentary system, they did not envisage the Rajya Sabha in the manner of the House of Lords. The House of Lords has neither the right to make a law, and nor any to amend the Constitution. Only debates are conducted in that assembly. If the House of Commons (which is equivalent of the Lok Sabha) wishes to gain from those debates, it is another matter. The House of Lords can never become an obstruction for the ‘house of people’ and this set-up is not new, it has been so since 1910. In this regard, one remembers the recommendations of the Justice M N Venkatachaliah Commission, made in March 2002. The commission was constituted by former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. It recommended that the Parliament sit in session for at least a 100 days in a year, and that members should try to preserve the dignity of the Parliament with their conduct and behaviour.
The committee also recommended training for new members so that they are introduced to the complex procedures, arrangements, rules and traditions of the Parliament. However, with the decreasing interest of the members in the debates on various subjects and their absence in the Rajya Sabha, a new problem has risen. In Rajya Sabha, there is a provision to nominate 12 members on the basis of their special knowledge or practical experience in the fields of literature, science, art and social service, but nominated members rarely attend the Rajya Sabha sessions.
As Rajya Sabha member Naresh Agarwal demanded, nominated members like actress Rekha and former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, either show up in house, or resign. The logic behind having nominated members was that such MPs would never be burdened with the usual electoral calculations, and their knowledge and experience can be harnessed to make better laws. But when these members don’t even attend the house, their nomination cannot be justified.
Reforms in Rajya Sabha have now become inevitable. Rising above calculations of political profit-loss, there will have to be constitutional amendments in line with the basic sentiments of federalism and parliamentary democracy. Although, numbers don’t currently favour the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance in the Rajya Sabha, as the BJP increases it foothold in various states, it is expected that by 2019, the Modi government will be in a better position in the upper house. Yet, there should still be a serious debate on whether in a democratic country like India, the popular mandate-based Lok Sabha can be held hostage by the Rajya Sabha, which is not directly elected.
Can’t relations between the two houses, with reference to usual legislation also, be like what they are when it comes to money bills, as enunciated in the provisions of Article 109 of the Constitution? Can we not follow the British Constitution in the determination of the mutual relations between the two houses? By doing thus, there will be no harm done to the dignity of the Rajya Sabha, rather it would be aligned with the mandate and the will of the people.
This article was first published in Hindi in Dainik Jagran and has been published here with the author’s permission.
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