Rajya Sabha’s winter of disquiet

Updated - November 16, 2021 04:06 pm IST

Published - December 22, 2015 12:28 am IST

Parliament has suddenly been galvanised into action, and the >Rajya Sabha is now to take up for discussion amendments to the Juvenile Justice Act. On Monday, the Supreme Court, wisely, refused to stay the release after three years of detention of one of the men involved in the gang rape of December 16, 2012 who had not turned 18 at the time of the horrific crime. It is a sign of falling standards that a resolve by parliamentarians to take up anything at all for deliberation is notice-worthy. But >Rajya Sabha> MPs must pay heed to the disquiet that they are echoing a mob-like frenzy in signing up to the amendment to reduce the age of juvenility, without enough reflection on why crime by young people puts different responsibilities for rehabilitation on a society. The Rajya Sabha is on test today not only for the urgency with which it takes note of the sentiment on the street — it will be judged for the sense of proportion it brings to the subject and the evenness with which its members grapple with the distinction between retribution and rehabilitation, between collective responsibility for the country’s young and abdication of the vulnerable. In a larger sense, too, in 2015 the Rajya Sabha has been asked to make a case for its institutional relevance, and how the House rises to the challenge would have implications for the assertiveness of Parliament as a whole.

The numbers are dismal. According to data compiled by PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based think tank, as of December 18 the Rajya Sabha had wasted more than half its available hours in the winter session. Question Hour had functioned in the House for only 15 per cent of the allotted time — in contrast to 88 per cent in the Lok Sabha. The numbers do not reflect the initiatives taken by the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Vice-President Hamid Ansari, in trying inventive ways to keep the deliberative and questioning spirit alive. Over his two terms he has, for instance, got the House to take up questions even if the MP against whose name it had been listed was absent, and to reschedule Question Hour to a quieter time of day — but to little avail. Discipline apart, of late there has been criticism of the Rajya Sabha’s capacity to hold up non-money bills passed by the Lok Sabha. This obviously draws from the ruling NDA’s numerical disadvantage in the House. Critics overlook the essential need for a permanent House in a country as diverse as India — to ensure continuity as a check against sudden changes in government and agendas, and to reflect the voice of States in this federal polity. If anything, the lack of numbers should propel the ruling party to reach the extra inch across the aisles in the Lok Sabha, to agree to have its Ministers put to more stringent questioning, even to interest Opposition MPs by adopting Prime Minister’s Questions, and, most importantly, to loosen the debate-snuffing restrictions of the anti-defection law and allow bipartisan coalitions to be built around specific pieces of legislation. In India’s unique form of bicameralism, the key to unlocking a stand-off in one House inevitably lies in the other House. Just as the way to institutional strength lies in empowering individual MPs.

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