Upper House Be Damned ?


Should India’s Upper House, the Rajya Sabha always play second fiddle to the Lok Sabha? The BJP seems to think so and has cited the Salisbury Convention of the British Parliament as proof of how it should function. The opposition disagrees and has accused the government of seeking to subvert established institutions BY SWATI DEB

‘What we really achieve by the existence of this second chamber (Rajya Sabha) is only an instrument by which we delay action which might be hastily conceived, and we also give an opportunity, perhaps, to seasoned people who may not be in the thickest of the political fray, but who might be willing to participate in the debate… I think, on the whole, the balance of consideration is in favour of having such a chamber and taking care to see that it does not prove a clog either to legislation or administration” – Gopalaswami Ayyangar during the debate in the Constituent Assembly.

Ayyangar’s words were prophetic. Today, the two houses of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, are deadlocked, unable to agree on anything. Call it bloody mindedness, but the Congress refuses to concede to the BJP even on bills initiated during Manmohan Singh’s tenure as prime minister.

It led Finance Minister and Rajya Sabha member Arun Jaitley to loudly muse that “The wisdom of a directly elected House (Lok Sabha) is questioned repeatedly by the indirectly elected House (Rajya Sabha).”

It had the unintended effect of sparking off a national debate on the relevance of the bicameral system. Insiders say none other than Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari, vice president of India, in a meeting with floor leaders of political parties, expressed his displeasure over the ‘questioning’ of the powers and legitimacy of the upper House – especially over scrutiny of Bills.

The BJP tried to heal the breach. MoS Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said that “Arunji or anybody in the government has never questioned the legitimacy of Rajya Sabha. The role of the upper House as envisioned by the founding fathers was as an enabler, a house which will contribute to the quality of debate and improve legislation.”

In fact, there is a school of thought which argues that the current model of bicameral parliamentary democracy needs change. The earlier definition and powers of the primacy of the legislature or bicameralism was based on the conviction that the executive or the elected House should not overpower the system. This was okay until globalization transformed the dynamics of the economy, with the executive often compelled to take hard unpopular measures based on external forces.

But the Congress saw political gain in this debate and Madhusudhan Mistry moved a privilege motion against Jaitley, saying the minister’s statement “creates an impression in the minds of the people, also in media that the Rajya Sabha has no authority. It reflects as if Rajya Sabha must abide by whatever transpires in the Lok Sabha and has to just put a seal on it.”

Jaitley fought back saying “…the legislation approval is becoming extremely challenging… this (obstructionism) has slowed down the process of legislation approval.”

His comment reflected the frustration in ruling party ranks over the inability to get their legislative agenda through the upper house. With 48 members as against 68 of the Congress, the party is in a hopeless minority even with its alliance partners.

“The Rajya Sabha collectively can question the wisdom of Lok Sabha vis-à-vis legislations,” argued Naqvi. “However, this can’t happen bill after bill, session after session and that too at the whims and fancies of a particular party and their credited or discredited leader (Rahul Gandhi).”

“In fact, if we had numbers in the Rajya Sabha, even the controversial Land Bill would have been an Act by now as the Lok Sabha had passed the Bill once during budget session of Parliament in March 2015,” said a BJP MP not wanting to be identified.

Opposition leaders sensed a conspiracy in the saffron party raking up the role of the Rajya Sabha and warned that the Modi government was veering towards dictatorship. The media joined in: “Ugly and potentially threatening to the core of the bicameral system of parliamentary democracy are the increasingly shrill postures being taken by the NDA government and the opposition over the role and authority of the Rajya Sabha,” ran an editorial in The Statesman.

“Jaitley is only trying to hoodwink the real issue of accountability and parliamentary balance,“ warned RS MP Sharad Yadav. “If his logic is taken then the President of India would have no power and be considered lower in hierarchy to the Lok Sabha since the President is not directly elected,” he argued. There’s also the fact that both houses enjoy equal freedom and status.

As political tempers rose, Jaitley launched a direct attack on the Congress first family: “You can’t have individual ambitions obstruct a popular mandate. Less and less businesses are controlled by families due to start-ups, but more political parties are family controlled,” he said adding: “Families that control political parties believe that they have divine right to be in power. Such tendencies lead to a right to obstruct. It is time we set up conventions as the British did to ensure we get legislative sanctions.”

In the heat of the debate, many missed Jaitley’s indirect reference to the Salisbury Convention of the British Parliament. The convention dates back to 1945 and lays down the norms which guide the House of Lords (on which the Rajya Sabha is modeled) in its relations with the House of Commons. Thus the Lords “do not reject any legislation that has been supported by the electorate. The House of Lords does not oppose at second reading (when the principle of a bill is decided) any government bill which has been outlined in the government party’s manifesto at the previous general election.”

The BJP sees this as proof of the Lok Sabha’s supremacy. The catch here is that unlike in the UK, party manifestoes are seldom taken seriously in India and there is no articulation of the bills or other legislation the party plans to move.

The BJP is hoping that it can reach out to the other opposition parties and persuade them to see reason. “Parties like Samajwadi and Trinamool Congress are not part of NDA but after a point they also got disgusted with the manner the Congress conducted itself,” claims Naqvi.

But that remains to be seen. More immediately, the BJP must brace for a new opposition campaign centering around the charge that the current government is not representative enough, having come to power on a minority of votes.

“It was a mere 31 per cent votes for BJP and at best about 39 per cent for the NDA of 66.38 per cent of the 814.5 million eligible voters,” says CPI MP D Raja. In his view, it means that only a minority of voters have preferred the saffron party. Therefore the opposition is justified in not cooperating with the government, which also means more heat in the Rajya Sabha.


  • The legislative deadlock in the Rajya Sabha has frustrated and angered the BJP but its hands are tied given its low numbers in the house
  • Finance Minister Jaitley has suggested adopting some conventions of the British House of Lords but the opposition is disinterested
  • Rather the opposition has accused the government with trying to subvert the Rajya Sabha and even moved a privilege motion
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