By Bhanu Dhamija

Our Parliament’s second chamber, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), was devised to represent the states and prevent hasty, ill-conceived legislation. By now we can all see, however, that it performs poorly on both counts.

Today’s Rajya Sabha represents only political party bosses, and acts as their tool for partisan politics. The fault lies in its basic design. A bicameral legislature cannot fit smoothly within a parliamentary system.

And the alterations made over time in its member qualifications, in fact, have made the situation worse. If we don’t revise the Rajya Sabha’s structure and role, then soon, it will lose its last shred of value to India’s democracy.

One-Party Rule, Bane of India’s Democracy

The Rajya Sabha’s faulty role in today’s politics is the reason Prime Minister Modi and BJP party boss Amit Shah are going all-out to grab control of this body. We saw the bitter fight for one seat in Gujarat; the Modi government didn’t shy away from using our tax authorities to intimidate the opposition.

To secure another seat, Shah nominated himself. And a trusted BJP lieutenant, Venkaiah Naidu, was moved from an important ministry and made Vice President and Rajya Sabha Chairman. If this behaviour continues, the day is not far when the BJP will have total control of both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.

While this would certainly allow the fast-tracking of Modi’s agenda, it would not be so good for India’s democracy. For, instead of fixing the Rajya Sabha’s systemic weaknesses, the BJP would surely use it as a partisan tool, similar to how the Congress party has done in the past. This would be a huge setback for the Indian people –diminishing individuals’ representation; eroding the quality of our law-making even further; lessening government oversight; and further damaging India’s federalism.

How UK Stripped the House of Lords of Powers

As it is, using the Rajya Sabha effectively for our democracy is difficult because it’s incompatible with the parliamentary set-up. Two separately elected houses go against the basic parliamentary premise that the legislature appoints and controls a single government. For this reason, some members in India’s Constituent Assembly suggested having a unicameral legislature.

Lokanath Misra even moved an amendment to remove the Council of States from the draft constitution.

He said unless the Council was structured in a way that it had “no influence on the House of the People,” it would be “a waste of public money and […] time.”Ambedkar denied his amendment without comment.

Even the mother Parliament in the UK has struggled with a bicameral legislature. As long as the House of Lords acted as a bulwark of the monarchy and could veto the House of Commons, it served a vital purpose.

But when the democratic reforms in 1832 began empowering the Commons, the Lords’ balancing role started to erode. In 1911 the British Parliament took away the Hose of Lords’ power of veto. In 1949, its ability to delay bills was reduced further.

In 2005 the House of Lords was stripped of its judicial functions entirely, with the establishment of an independent Supreme Court.

And in 2011, a bill sought to drastically reduce the size of that body, requiring that 80 percent be elected instead of all being appointed. British constitutional scholar Sir Sidney Low admitted in 1904:

If the system of ‘checks and balances’ is to save a country from the excesses of democratic violence, the House of Lords fulfills its purpose very imperfectly. Sir Sidney Low, British Constitutional Expert

Rajya Sabha Under the Rule of Political Masters

Both the Indian and British experiences confirm that giving two legislative chambers control over a parliamentary government doesn’t work. But our India’s Rajya Sabha faces yet another incompatibility. Its role as the states’ representative is not in keeping with a parliamentary system’s design, which is inherently unitary.

When the central government can interfere with state governments and their functions, the Rajya Sabha loses its place as the voice of states’ rights.

No wonder India removed, via a constitutional amendment in 2003, the requirement that its members belong to the state from where they are elected.

This change created a free-for-all for party bosses. Now they can send party loyalists to Parliament without holding popular elections. Political commentator Kuldip Nayar, himself a former Rajya Sabha member, writes:

Now the whole house is nominated by political masters.
Kuldip Nayar, Political Commentator

Primary Objective of Being a ‘Revising Chamber’

India needs to change the Rajya Sabha from being a blatant party platform to a governing institution. This can be done by structuring it according to its primary purpose of being a revising chamber. Rajya Sabha’s main aim was best described by its first chairman, S Radhakrishnan: “A second chamber is essential to prevent hasty legislation.”

In 1928, the Motilal Nehru Report recommended that India have an upper house for reconsidering legislation, in a “somewhat cooler atmosphere.” The Constituent Assembly, wisely, agreed.

Those same words were spoken on the other side of the world 150 years earlier, by George Washington, when he sat with the other American Founding Fathers planning their system. In describing the role that their Senate needed to play, he said: “We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

Equal Representation in the Upper House

For the Rajya Sabha to have ‘a cooler atmosphere’ it must be configured differently from the emotive Lok Sabha. Rajya Sabha members must represent bigger constituencies and wider interests. They must not be swayed by respective political party’s fortunes and whims of bosses.

They must be more mature and experienced. And they must feel more stable in their seats of power. Besides this, the Rajya Sabha must also have a structure and role that is markedly different from that of the Lok Sabha.

Some of these structural elements are already in place. The minimum age of Rajya Sabha members is higher (30 years vs 25 for Lok Sabha) and the term longer (six years vs five). Also, the Rajya Sabha is a permanent house; only one-third of its members face election every two years. Incidentally, these features are the same as the US Senate. But that’s where the similarities end.

For a full democratic utilisation of the Rajya Sabha, India must consider three major changes.

  • One, Rajya Sabha members must be elected directly by the people. This is the only way to remove the hold of party bosses and corruption from the election process.
  • Two, members must be elected from the entire state, a bigger constituency than their Lok Sabha counterparts.
  • And three, Rajya Sabha must have equal representation from each state.

Overseeing Cabinet and Judicial Appointments

For a diverse federal nation like India, equal representation for states is well founded, especially when Lok Sabha representation is based on population. Imagine the benefit when in one house of Parliament, all of India’s diversity is reflected in equal numbers. It would do wonders for the nation’s feeling of fraternity and equality. Granted, the country should raise the number of members of Lok Sabha and lower that of Rajya Sabha.

As for changes in Rajya Sabha’s role, it should be given specific oversight authority over government, leaving the general accountability to Lok Sabha. For example, like the US Senate, India’s Rajya Sabha can be the approving authority for all foreign treaties, major cabinet appointments, and Supreme Court justices. This could be the perfect way out of the current fight between government and the judiciary on who appoints the judges.

Let’s hope once Modi gains full control of both houses, these suggestions are considered. For only through such changes can we secure India’s democracy.

[The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija ]

This article was first published on The Quint on 20 August 2017