Baijayant “Jay” Panda of the Biju Janata Dal has kicked off an important national debate on the role of the Rajya Sabha. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has also voiced his frustration with the ability of the Rajya Sabha to block the legislative agenda of an elected government.
As is so often the case, the Constituent Assembly had debated some of these issues in its meetings. A few members had warned that a second house of parliament would slow legislative activity. Yet, this was precisely why others wanted a bicameral legislature. A second house would act as a check on a government that pushed through agendas based on the passions of the moment. The speech by Constituent Assembly member Gopalaswami Ayyangar, when he summed up the debate, is still worth reading today.
The origins of the Rajya Sabha can be traced back to the constitutional reforms brought in by the colonial government after the Montagu-Chelmsford recommendations in 1919. It created a council of states to act as a second house. The Government of India Act of 1935 strengthened this institution. It was made into a permanent body, where a third of the members retired by rotation, as a way to ensure that there is continuity in policy. The Constituent Assembly eventually voted for a Rajya Sabha as a necessity for a complex federation such as ours.
India needs a strong council of states, perhaps even more so today when there is so much attention being paid to the principle of cooperative federalism. That is why it should not be compared to either the House of Lords in the UK or the US Senate. The Rajya Sabha is part of the institutional architecture of Indian federalism. But that does not mean its reform should not be considered.
There are two issues that are important here. First, should the Rajya Sabha have a veto over subjects that are almost completely the business of the Union government? There is a strong case to take a fresh look at what type of policies need its green signal, just as the meddling of New Delhi in areas that are constitutionally the responsibility of the states needs to be stopped. The realignment of constitutional responsibilities is not an issue that can be settled without careful debate.
Second, should the Rajya Sabha be a permanent body whose composition is often at odds with that of the Lok Sabha? Its structure was meant to give some stability to policy, but the experience of recent years shows that the lack of alignment between the two houses of Parliament is merely an opportunity for the opposition parties of the day to block the government. But how to get a house of states that reflects the most recent political preferences of Indians is a tough problem, given that elections are not held at the same time across India and that political mandates in the centre and the states are often different (even when elections are held at the same time).
The Indian institutional structure was decided against the backdrop of a violent partition of the country and when crusty old imperialists such as Winston Churchill were predicting a rapid Balkanization of the country. India is now a mature republic that is capable of true federalism. It also needs a strong national government whose ability to pursue its popular mandate has been in recent years stymied by the Rajya Sabha, especially given the heft the populous states have in it. The council of states should not be abolished, but it definitely needs to be reformed to get the institutional incentives right.
As Ayyangar said in the Constituent Assembly: “The most that we expect the second chamber to do is perhaps to hold dignified debates on important issues and delay legislation which may be the outcome of passions of the moment until the passions have subsided… and we shall take care to provide in the Constitution that whenever on any important matter, especially matters related to finance, there is a conflict between the house of people and the council of states, it is the view of the house of people that shall prevail.”
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