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Is It Time To Abolish The Rajya Sabha?

31/12/2015 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NEW DELHI, INDIA - JULY 30: Dense clouds over the Parliament House during the ongoing Monsoon Session on July 30, 2015 in New Delhi, India. The Lok Sabha was adjourned for the day as a mark of respect to former President APJ Abdul Kalam, while the Rajya Sabha was adjourned till 2 pm. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In an editorial published on 8 October, 1999, The New York Times praised the Indian democracy in glowing terms, saying it "set a stirring example for all nations." The editorial averred that 360 million voters have proved that a commitment to resolving disputes peacefully and democratically can transform diversity into a source of strength.

However, if the NY Times were to write an article on the state of the Indian democracy today, they would be appalled to see a dysfunctional parliament, especially the Upper House, which has been held hostage by India's Grand Old Party on flimsy grounds.

When the opposition employs negative tactics, as the Congress is doing in the Upper House, it is in a way insulting the people of India...

The rot started during the UPA 2 government, when proceedings in both the houses came to a virtual standstill because of scams in the spectrum and coal allocation and the Commonwealth Games. The culprit, at that time was the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had continuously disrupted the functioning of Parliament in both the houses till the UPA government eventually succumbed to their demands of removing the tainted ministers. The chickens have come home to roost, as the Congress has been adopting similar tactics ever since Modi led BJP came to power at the Centre. Unfortunately, the other political parties -- like CPI (M), TMC, RJD, SP, BSP -- have not backed the BJP, given their longstanding mistrust of the ruling party's secular credentials.

Both the monsoon and winter sessions were subject to frequent disruptions, and the consensus is that both have been washouts , with the stalling of key reforms such as the Goods and Services Tax Bill. The Congress stalled proceedings on flimsy grounds, the most recent being the alleged political vendetta driving the National Herald Case. In fact, the BJP has had no role in the case as the matter is pending in the court on a petition filed in 2012 by Dr Subramanian Swamy in his individual capacity.

Many surveys carried out by leading agencies like the World Bank, OECD, IMF have predicted that India will become a superpower by 2020 and provide a serious contest to China. However, these predictions will come to nought if crucial bills are not passed. It must be remembered that in 1950, India had a distinct edge over China in terms of economic development. Now, China has far outstripped India in terms of economic growth and has become a global powerhouse. The Congress has failed to realise that their obstructionist approach, intended to put BJP in its place, has only managed to derail India's growth story.

The time has come to either abolish the Upper House of Parliament... or bring total reformation in the manner the legislators are being elected and/or nominated.

It is true that dissent is an essential part of any democracy. However, when the opposition employs negative tactics, as the Congress is doing in the Upper House, it is in a way insulting the people of India, who had given an unprecedented mandate to the Modi-led BJP in the hope that he would set India on an accelerated path to growth and development.

The question that arises is, does India even need an Upper House? The Upper House of the Parliament was created as a check and balance system of the Constitution. The rationale behind a bicameral system was to safeguard against the possible misuse of the Lower House by parties with an absolute majority. It is for this reason the bicameralism has been the mainstay of our parliamentary democracy. In fact, both the houses have in the past complemented each other in encouraging healthy debate that could have a bearing on the future of the people of India.

However, during the last two decades, we are seeing intellectuals and academics being replaced by politicians with dubious motives. It is for this reason the quality of debates has degenerated over time and bears little resemblance to the debates that took place during the time of Nehru, who in spite of his party having an absolute majority, had always respected the views of opposition leaders. We are now seeing shouting and slanging matches between political parties. Logic has given away to lung power! The frequent stalling of proceedings in the Upper House, where the ruling party does not have a majority, has already cost the exchequer several crores this year.

With political battle lines drawn between major political parties, the Upper House has become a hindrance to the speedy legislative process that the country urgently requires for economic growth and progress. It is no longer fulfilling the purpose for which it was intended.

For every day of non-functioning of the parliament, the loss to the exchequer is over Rs 2 crores. According to an estimate, the total loss of not transacting business in the Indian Parliament during the monsoon session was nearly Rs 36 crores. In the winter session, over Rs 30 crores have been lost due to the dysfunctional Upper House. Over the last five years, over Rs 300 crores have been lost through stalled proceedings in both houses. The former parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Kumar Bansal noted in 2012 that 77% of the session's business time in the Lok Sabha and 72% in Rajya Sabha was lost due to disruptions and asked the Opposition to realize that "enough is enough". Nothing has changed since then.

An amendment that should be immediately considered is for a joint sitting should be held, without waiting for six months to elapse, to overcome deadlock between the two houses.

The time has come to either abolish the Upper House of Parliament, as it has lost its relevance, or bring total reformation in the manner the legislators are being elected and/or nominated. The Upper House was created to include people full of wisdom, experience and specialised knowledge. However, over the past 10 years it has become an avenue for political parties to accommodate their defeated politicians in the parliamentary system. The quality of debate in both houses has degenerated vastly as a result. Alternately, only apolitical people, who have made a name for themselves in their fields, should be nominated to the Upper House. For this purpose, a panel consisting of the Chief Justice of India, Speaker, members of major political parties, should be vested with powers to select eminent persons to the Upper House.

The second amendment that should be immediately considered is for a joint sitting should be held, without waiting for six months to elapse, to overcome deadlock between the two houses. The President should call a joint session whenever he finds that a deliberate attempt is being made by vested interests to stall Parliament. The Constitution needs to be amended to consider even constitutional amendments in the joint session (under Article 118 of the Constitution, a joint session can be called only in matters that do not relate to the amendment of the Constitution).

In this regard, India has much to learn from the functioning of parliaments in Europe and Australia, where if the bill is rejected twice in the Upper House (House of Lords/Senate), a joint sitting of both the houses is held, where the bills are passed by an absolute majority. Moreover, the Upper Houses in many of the countries in Europe as well as Canada rarely threaten the primacy of the main legislatures and often serve to give voice to people and places that would be otherwise be overlooked.

As India is at a crucial juncture of development, the government should seriously consider either bringing urgent reforms in the functioning of the Rajya Sabha, especially the way its members are elected, and also limiting its power in overriding the decisions taken by the Lok Sabha, so that it does not become an impediment to democracy. The other alternative is to abolish the Upper House, so that key economic reforms are not held hostage by the opposition parties.

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