Home / Opinion / Columns /  A Rajya Sabha rebalance must go with Lok Sabha expansion

My previous column on how India’s enlightened adoption of linguistic pluralism has allowed it to escape the fate of its subcontinental neighbours was published, coincidentally, the day angry mobs stormed the Sri Lankan prime minister’s official residence, forcing him to resign and seek refuge in a military facility. The triggers of the island’s crisis might be recent, but the roots go back to 1956 and its failure to construct an equitable republic for its two main ethnic groups. I’m underlining this again because the basic structure of the state can propel a society’s growth, development and satisfaction, or their opposite. In political organizations, as with much else, design matters.

Linguistic pluralism is the first of the three major design elements responsible for Independent India’s unity, development and dynamism. The second is our federal structure.

When I was a high school student, our civics curriculum taught us that India is “federal in structure but unitary in spirit". Contemporary public discourse celebrates “cooperative federalism" as a positive model of governance.

Indian federalism differs from American or European federalism in that pre-existing states did not come together and constitute a federation. It is also true that the unitary spirit of the Indian republic is a deliberate act of nationalism. Yet Indian federalism is still federalism. Rejecting charges of centralism, Ambedkar explained that “The States, under our Constitution, are in no way dependent upon the Centre for their legislative or executive authority. The Centre and the States are co-equal in this matter."

The Constitution strikes a balance between popular will, exercised by the Lok Sabha, and the interests of states through the Rajya Sabha. This is modelled more on the US Senate than on the British House of Lords. Our Upper House doesn’t represent the interests of hereditary lords and theocrats, but as its name suggests, it is a chamber where states negotiate their interests. The Lok Sabha can be constituted on the basis of population, but the Rajya Sabha’s capacity to stand up for the states’ interests was to remain unchanged. Even if the Rajya Sabha makes for an unequal federation—Upper House seats are also allocated on the basis of population—to the extent that it functions as the voice of states, it serves a federal purpose.

Like the Tamil adage on garlands in the hands of monkeys, we have allowed popular fashions and political exigencies to undermine the federal structure. If we had stuck to the design, then delimitation exercises would not have raised the deep anxieties, fears and grievances as they have since Indira Gandhi’s times. States in the south and the east are concerned about the prospect of the more populous north gaining Lok Sabha seats.

The fact that delimitation has been postponed twice since the 1970s suggests there are deep misgivings among states over their status and power within the federal structure. These qualms are re-emerging now that delimitation is in the offing. That is why it is crucial to take an enlightened national approach to the matter, not partisan or parochial ones.

The Lok Sabha must be expanded and constituted on the basis of population: We can devise an optimum formula for this, but our Constitutional principle demands that population be the basis. If this means highly populated northern states get more seats, then that has to be accepted. However, this is only half the story. The principle also demands that the standing of states not get diminished relative to each other, or to the Union.

For this, we must first correct a grave mistake made by the Parliament and Supreme Court. The 2003 amendment to the Representation of People’s Act that did away with domicile requirements for Rajya Sabha candidates and the 2006 apex court verdict in Kuldip Nayar vs Union of India that upheld it have undermined the federal balance. As much as I respect Manmohan Singh’s intellectual and political credentials, I cannot accept that he was in any position to advocate the interests of Assam, which he represented in the Rajya Sabha. The Upper House has become an instrument in the hands of party leaders, like the Lok Sabha after the anti-defection law. Parliament has been reduced to a mere numbers game, with special effects.

Students have to prove they have lived in a state for seven years before they can get admission to professional courses under the state quota. A citizen must provide proof of residence to register as a voter in the local and state elections. Many states have domicile requirements for government jobs and welfare entitlements. Yet, the Rajya Sabha now does not. We thus have people who cannot vote in or stand for a local election in a state representing it in the Rajya Sabha. Domicile requirements must be brought back.

The Upper House must also be reformed in line with Ambedkar’s vision of equality among states. In the US, tiny Rhode Island and giant California both have the same number of representatives in the federal Senate. Here, Manipur has a single Rajya Sabha member, who does not even have to be from the state, while Uttar Pradesh has 31. Design has consequences. Perhaps the Supreme Court was right to opine that the Rajya Sabha is not akin to the US Senate, but in the interests of national unity, we should make it so. Let all states have the same number of seats in the Rajya Sabha.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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