Home > 2016 > Rajya Sabha abandoning its Role as a Federal Chamber

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 39 New Delhi September 17, 2016

Rajya Sabha abandoning its Role as a Federal Chamber

Sunday 18 September 2016

by S.K. Jain

In recent time, the Rajya Sabha has become the centre of controversy for two reasons. First with the recently held biennial election to fill the vacant seats where cross-voting by MLAs of different parties led to the defeat of the official/supported candidate of the Congress and other regional parties. Charges are being levelled by these parties of using corrupt practices against each other bringing the reputation of the Rajya Sabha to a very low level contrary to the expectations of our Constitution-makers.

The other reasons is the alleged obstructionist role of the Rajaya Sabha in the working of the government’s development agenda with many pending Bills in the House. However with great difficulties the GST Bill was passed lately. Since the ruling NDA Government does not have the required majority in the Rajya Sabha, it has to depend on the Congress and other regional parties’ support to pass important Bills to fulfil its manifesto for better governance or “achche din” for the common people of the country. A fresh look at the Rajya Sabha in the present context is necessary in its role as the Federal second chamber of the Indian Constitution.

The Indian Parliament is made of the President and the two Houses. While the two Houses continue to be recognised by their names in the Constitution as the House of the People and Council of States respectively, the Speaker of the former, G.V. Mavalankar, announced on May 14, 1954 that the House of People would thereafter be known as the Lok Sabha and Dr S. Radhakrishnan made a similar announcement on August 23, 1954 that the Council of States would be called the Rajya Sabha. Behind the idea of the Rajya Sabha was the federal character of India besides being a revising and reflective chamber. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, a member of Constituent Assembly, described the Rajya Sabha as a sobering house, a reviewing house, a house standing for quality, an impartial chamber of revision of the measures and proposals advanced by the Lok Sabha unswayed by considerations of electoral outcome.

Quite a few who spoke in the Constituent Assembly envisaged the Rajya Sabha as the cultural face of India par excellence enabling the country in general and Parliament in particular to have the larger picture in mind and act in cognisance of it. Accommodating diversity too figured in it prominently. Naziruddin Ahmad, a member of the Constituent Assembly, said: “We have to consider the entry of the States into the federation and second chamber would be an absolute necessity without which it would be difficult to fit in the representatives of the States in the scheme of things.” The argument saw the Rajya Sabha as the guardian of the interests in a commonwealth of States. Therefore, those who aspired to its membership had to know the interests of the States they represented and possibly see these interests in relation to, and in consonance with, the interests of the Union as a whole. The Rajya Sabha was a representa-tive of the nation like the Lok Sabha but in a different sense. It would represent the nation as a differentiated whole. L.M. Singhvi even agreed that the Rajaya Sabha be named as “senate” to convey the principle. According to him, the Rajya Sabha should not be merely a revising chamber but represent the “federal ethos in India”. It should be the grand inquest of the nation, reflecting the diversities of languages, of culture, perception and diversities of interest. It should be the house of wisdom and federal understanding.

The Constitution-makers conceptualised the Council of States as a representative body of States in the federal framework of the Indian Constitution. Hence the Representation of People Act, 1951 stipulated that a person would not be qualified to be chosen as a representative of any State or Union Territory in the Rajya Sabha unless he is an elector for a parliamentary constituency in that State or Territory. The electoral law for registration as voter was based on the criterion of “ordinarily a resident in a constituency”. However, we find over the years that many members of the Rajya Sabha being elected from States of which they were not residents or have had little ethnic or linguistic affiliation with people ordinarily resident in that State. Quite often such members were important politicians who were either defeated in the Lok Sabha elections or had no capacity to win an election. The domicile issue had become a sensitive one in the 1990s, when T.N. Seshan, the then Chief Election Commissioner, sought to disqualify Dr Manmohan Singh, the then Finance Minister and Rajya Sabha member in the P.V. Narashima Rao Government, on the ground that he did not ordinarily reside in Assam and therefore did not fulfil the legal qualification for the membership of the House. Over the years many politicians—O. Rajagopal, Venkaiah Naidu, Arun Jaitly (BJP), Kapil Sibal, Jayram Ramesh (Congress), Ram Jethmalani (RJD)—followed the example. However, finally in August 2003, the domicile requirement was done away with through an amendment of section 3 of the Act that replaced the words “in the State or territory in India”. The amendment also made the election of the Rajya Sabha members open rather than being a secret as had been the case so far. This amendment was supported by all political parties except the Left parties.

However, this amendment was challenged in the Supreme Court through a PIL by Kuldip Nayar and Indrajit Singh by saying that this amendment violated the basic structure of the Constitution since such a requirement was the basic principle behind the Council of States and that the Parliament in 1951 prescribed the domiciliary qualification in the electoral law. They pleaded that anyone who is not a resident of the State should not be eligible to contest the elections to the Rajya Sabha. The PIL also sought that elections to the Rajya Sabha should not be open but secret. However, the five-judge Bench, headed by Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal, passed a unanimous judgment in favour of the amendment. The Court also did not see any problem in the open ballot system for the Rajya Sabha election on the basis of the need to avoid cross-voting and wipe out the evil of corruption as also to maintain what the court termed as “the integrity of our democratic set-up”.

Now in the light of this when we see the role and function of the Rajya Sabha, we find that the Rajya Sabha has abandoned its role both as the custodian of interests of the States to maintain the sanctity of the federal system besides holding dignified debates on important issues having a sobering effect on the restive Lok sabha. What is now being witnessed by the proceedings of the House is that it has lost its coolness, sobriety, and maturity by members often rushing to the well of House on the slightest pretext for sheer political consideration to please their party bosses. All this has led to disruption and adjournment of the House more often than not denting the image of the House of elder and matured people. The Rajya Sabha was supposed to be the intellectual and theoretical face of Parliament against the mundane and ordinary Lok Sabha. However, this seems to be fading away though it is still a parking lounge of political glitterati and public intellectuals. The Lok Sabha has been the pulse of the vitality of Indian democracy but refuses to acknowledge the Rajya Sabha as its intellectual superior since now it only represent the narrow interests of the political parties, either national or regional.

The political class has over the period changed the character and role of the Rajya Sabha what the Constitution-makers had envisaged for it in its original design keeping the wishes and aspirations of the States. The M.M. Punchi Commission Report on Centre-State Relations (2010) underlined the imperative of a major constitutional restructuring of the Rajya Sabha as a protector of the States’ rights by the grant of equal representation of States, small and big, in federal second chamber. This will reduce the present federal imbalance in Parliament wherein smaller States are heavily outnumbered in national as well as the federal chamber of the Parliament. Can we hope that the Rajya Sabha will restore its image as the second legislative and federal chamber reflecting the deep diversities of India? Only the political masters can tell us in this regard.

Dr S.K. is an Jain Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, Universty of Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail: drskjvk@gmail.com