Misdiagnosis of the Rajya Sabha malfunction

Why we must be very cautious of the current effort to reduce the powers of the Rajya Sabha and to dilute the provisions of the anti-defection legislation

December 23, 2015 01:05 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

"The powers of the Upper House to delay and oppose legislation passed by the Lower House were recognised and enshrined right from the very birth of the Rajya Sabha."

"The powers of the Upper House to delay and oppose legislation passed by the Lower House were recognised and enshrined right from the very birth of the Rajya Sabha."

The 2015 winter session of the Rajya Sabha has been one of the least > productive sessions in recent times. The English media’s pet concern, the Goods and Services Tax Bill, could not be passed in the process. This has triggered outrage, with some questioning the need for an Upper House at all. Some others have opined that an indirectly elected body such as the Rajya Sabha should not be allowed veto powers over a directly elected Lok Sabha.

Efforts to thwart productivity of either House of Parliament are condemnable and should trigger a debate on reforms to minimise them. However, mere opposition to a bill in the Rajya Sabha that has been passed by the Lok Sabha cannot be an excuse to curtail its powers. It is important to separate the two issues, legislative productivity vis-à-vis legislative dissent, which seem to have been muddled up in the current discourse. Amid these jumbled arguments, somehow the anti-defection law and the party whip have also been charged of abetting this failure of the Rajya Sabha to function, thus apportioning blame to everyone from our founding fathers to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for all our current evils. While it is tempting to attempt to string all these disparate issues into one rope with which to hang all of them, it is important to understand the guiding principles behind these laws and determine if those are still relevant to modern-day India before venturing into knee-jerk reforms.

Check against whims Mohammad Tahir representing Bihar in the Constituent Assembly during the debate on the Constitution on July 28, 1947 said that “the Upper House is a creation of imperialism” and argued that independent India did not need it. To which, the mover of the debate, Gopalaswami Ayyangar, replied that “the role of the Upper House is merely to delay legislation which might be the outcome of passions of the moment until the passions have subsided”. It was obvious even to our founding fathers that the “House of People” (Lok Sabha) can fall prey to passionate rhetoric and thus felt a need for a “House of Elders” (Rajya Sabha) to instil calm. The powers of the Upper House to delay and oppose legislation passed by the Lower House were recognised and enshrined right from the very birth of the Rajya Sabha. It can be nobody’s case that today’s Lok Sabha MPs are any less vulnerable to passing laws in the spur of the moment than our founding fathers were. So, to argue that the Rajya Sabha is being obstructionist for merely opposing legislation of the Lower House is a flawed argument.

Next is this false narrative of indirectly elected members of the Rajya Sabha having veto powers over the members of the Lok Sabha who are direct representatives of the people. In our first-past-the-post electoral system where a political party can form a government without the majority of citizens voting for it, legislation passed by the Lok Sabha may not necessarily represent the views of the majority. The percentage of seats won in the Lok Sabha by a political party is not the same as percentage of Indians voting for that party, as we all know. It then becomes even more pertinent and critical to have an active and vibrant Rajya Sabha.

That the Rajya Sabha would an indirectly elected body and would act as a balance to certain whimsical legislation of the people’s representatives in the Lok Sabha was a conscious design of our founding fathers. If anything, this need has only been exacerbated with creeping majoritarianism in the current Lok Sabha. It is thus futile to argue that somehow directly elected representatives are better lawmakers than those indirectly elected, and hence should be subordinate. The inability to build consensus by a ruling party cannot be disguised as opposition obstruction and elicit calls for reducing the powers of the Rajya Sabha. The need to build consensus in both Houses of Parliament to pass legislation should be the guiding principle of our parliamentary democracy.

Then, there is the argument that the Anti-Defection Act, which immediately disqualifies any member of Parliament who either changes political parties mid-way or disobeys the whip of her party, aggravates the chances of a dysfunctional Parliament. The core principle behind the Anti-Defection Act is to prevent horse-trading on the floor of the House and penalise members who succumb to temptations from opposition parties. This principle still remains very relevant for a large, diverse polity such as ours, with a large number of regional parties. The Lok Sabha recently held a discussion on a private member’s bill to de-criminalise certain Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. There was no whip issued by the major parties and members voted according to their choices, many times contrary to their party colleagues. The choice of when to issue a whip rests with the party. The Anti-Defection Act in itself cannot be made a villain for an internal matter of political parties over degrees of freedom to be given to their members for voting in Parliament.

Scope for reform All this is not to suggest everything is hunky-dory with our current system. There is clearly a need for new rules to prevent productivity of the entire House being held hostage by a few members rushing to the Well. There has to be an outlet for opposition members to voice their protests without disrupting productivity. One suggestion is to have designated day(s) in a week on which the opposition can raise, discuss and debate issues rather than the government dictating the order of business every day of the session. There can be innovative ways to create a framework within which the right to protest is not taken away but is done constructively. But to argue that the construct of the Upper House and the Anti-Defection Act need to be amended or done away with lends credence to our founding fathers’ fears of lawmaking in a fit of frenzy.

(Tathagata Satpathy is a member of Parliament and Chief Whip of the Biju Janata Dal in the Lok Sabha. Praveen Chakravarty is Visiting Fellow in Political Economy at IDFC Institute, a Mumbai-based think-tank. Views are entirely personal.)

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