Why Rajya Sabha is essential: It represents the states and balances an impetuous Lok Sabha

Times of India, December 26, 2015

Pavan K Varma*

My friend Jay Panda is a distinguished member of the Lok Sabha, not the Rajya Sabha. But he has an interest in the ?reform? of the Rajya Sabha that i fully respect because i believe it is animated by the well-intentioned motive of how to make our combined Parliament function better.

It was Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who first mooted this subject last August when he said that time has come to debate whether an ?indirectly? elected House like Rajya Sabha can hold up proposals approved by the directly elected Lok Sabha which ?represents the will of the people?. It is true that the Rajya Sabha is indirectly elected by the members of legislative assemblies of states on the basis of proportional representation. However, even so, it is very different from an appointed House of Lords.

Moreover, the system of checks and balances of a bi-cameral Parliament need to be understood without positing the relationship between the two Houses as adversarial. Jaitley?s frustration with Rajya Sabha to which he belongs is, perhaps, understandable. With an absolute majority in Lok Sabha, BJP faces uncomfortable questions in the Rajya Sabha where it is in a minority.

But this ?discomfort? was precisely the intention of the far- sighted makers of our Constitution, as can be seen from extensive discussions on the relevance of a second chamber in the Constituent Assembly. Finally, the makers of our Constitution decided that in a federal system reflecting the size and diversity of India, the Council of States was necessary.

In creating Rajya Sabha, our Constitution took care to make crucial differences with Lok Sabha. The council of ministers is collectively responsible to Lok Sabha which means that the Rajya Sabha cannot make the government fall; a money bill can only be introduced in Lok Sabha; the Rajya Sabha can discuss it, make recommendations, but not amend it; the national budget, finance bill, and demand for grants of various ministries can be discussed but not voted in Rajya Sabha; however, a Constitution amendment bill needs the specific approval of both Houses.

In addition, Rajya Sabha has two exclusive powers: it can with the support of two-thirds of its members delist a subject under the exclusive State List and declare it to be of national importance, empowering Parliament to legislate on it; and it can create one or more new All India Services.

The enumeration above is only to show that considerable thought has gone into the constitution and powers of Rajya Sabha. Do we need to denigrate or dilute or modify it only because of the current impasse on certain bills like GST, or solely because of the recent display of unacceptably indecorous behavior for which all parties are responsible and need to introspect?

The Lok Sabha certainly represents the people directly. But, there can conceivably be a situation where a party in the Lok Sabha has an absolute majority in which there is, for instance, not a single representative from south of the Vindhyas. Would not those states not in the ruling dispensation need a second chamber where their interests find due reflection?

Again, a political party with an absolute Lok Sabha majority could, under the pressure of the Whip system, pass inadequate or ill-considered bills. Should such bills not be given another consideration in a second House conceived precisely for this purpose?

The real imperative is to ensure that Parliament functions according to existing rules of decorum and etiquette. A serious resolve by both Treasury Benches and the Opposition to abjure unproductive and unseemly disruptions and resurrect the grandeur of debate, and not hastily devised proposals for changing the intricate balance of a carefully devised Parliamentary structure, is what is needed.

For instance, Panda?s proposal to pattern the Rajya Sabha on the model of the US Senate will achieve little because even elections on this basis will have candidates backed by political parties. Countries can always learn from the best constitutional practices of other democracies. But proposals for emulation based on transient causes for impatience are hardly good enough reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

*Former Diplomat, represents JD(U) in Rajya Sabha

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