Rajya Sabha, the Council of States is at a crossroads, writes former PM Manmohan Singh
The Rajya Sabha must deliberate, prevent hasty legislation and uphold states’ interest
It was after intense debates that the Constituent Assembly, especially the Union Constitution Committee, arrived at a consensus on the need for a bicameral system. Today, as we celebrate the 250th Session of the Rajya Sabha, it is appropriate for us to reflect on whether we have lived up to the vision of the framers of the Constitution.
The task before us was spelled out by our first Chairman, Dr. Radhakrishnan, during the very first session of this House. He emphasised that “Parliament is not only a legislative but a deliberative body. So far as its deliberative functions are concerned, it will be open to us to make very valuable contributions … we should try to do everything in our power to justify to the public of this country that a second Chamber is essential to prevent hasty legislation.”
During the drafting of the Constitution, Gopalaswamy Ayyangar advanced three reasons why India needed a second chamber.
He expected that the Rajya Sabha would “(a) hold dignified debates (b) delay legislation which might be the outcome of passions of the moment; and (c) provide opportunity to seasoned people who might not be in the thickest of political fray but who might be willing to participate in the debates with the amount of learning and importance which we do not ordinarily associate with the House of the People.”
For the manner in which the role of the Rajya Sabha has evolved, we have much to thank Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He asserted that neither House had any particular superiority over the other. He regarded the Rajya Sabha as an equal partner with Lok Sabha in the affairs of the State. But for his efforts, the Rajya Sabha would have been reduced to a mere second or revising Chamber and relegated to a secondary position in our parliamentary system.
Pandit Nehru asserted: “The successful working of our Constitution, as of any democratic structure, demands the closest cooperation between the two Houses. They are in fact parts of the same structure and any lack of that spirit of cooperation and accommodation would lead to difficulties and come in the way of proper functioning of our Constitution. It is, therefore, particularly to be regretted that any sense of conflict should arise between the two Houses.”
As explained by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly, the Rajya Sabha represents a crucial component of the constitutional system of checks and balances. We normally think of checks and balances as operating the different branches of government. However, the Rajya Sabha has a central role to provide checks and balances to a majority government in the Lok Sabha, along with its other key role is to represent the interest of the states in our federal Union.
When there is criticism of Rajya Sabha, it is fundamentally a misunderstanding of these historic roles bestowed upon this august chamber. It is our duty to ensure that no law is passed in haste and in an atmosphere of heightened emotions. That said, are there ways in which we can improve our functioning so that we come closer to the idealistic vision of our nation’s founders?
When it comes to deliberation, we start with an advantage. The Rajya Sabha gets more time to deliberate in comparison to Lok Sabha since we are only half the size, and therefore members get more time to share their insights and criticisms. But we can help our members perform even better through some procedural improvements.
The House must get access to Bills much earlier than now. Members should get additional resources, such as research staff, to allow them to study issues in more depth. And nominated members and those with special expertise in particular topics should be allotted more time for their speeches.
One recent innovation that has led to smoother functioning was introduced by our previous Chairman, Shri. Hamid Ansari. He saw that the House was losing valuable time when members wanted to adjourn Question Hour to raise issues of urgent national importance. He therefore switched the timings of Zero Hour and Question Hour.
The Question Hour was moved to 12 noon, while the Zero Hour was slotted for 11 AM. Now members’ desire to raise urgent issues is often accommodated as part of Zero Hour. And Question Hour functions much better. Thus, MPs are now able to hold the government accountable in a fuller manner.
But for our chamber to fully fulfil its deliberative function, it is important that we scrutinise bills more thoroughly in Committees, where not only the Members can apply their minds, but even expert and stakeholders’ opinions can be solicited.
In the 16th Lok Sabha, only 25% of the Bills introduced were referred to Committees, much lower than the 71% and 60% in the 15th and 14th Lok Sabha respectively. I would assert that regardless of what the other House does, it is crucial for our House to form select committees to ensure that bills receive the detailed scrutiny they deserve. From what I have seen, Rajya Sabha Select Committees have done a commendable job of improving legislation and I would urge that we ensure we follow this practice for all Bills that come before this House.
A crucial differentiating factor between the two Houses, is that Article 110 of the Constitution allows the Lok Sabha precedence in matters of the Money Bill. In the recent past, we have seen instances of misuse of the Money Bill provision by the Executive, leading to bypassing the Rajya Sabha on crucial legislations of importance, without any deliberation. Those in Treasury benches must ensure that such instances are avoided.
The Rajya Sabha is a permanent House. We have been designed in a manner to ensure continuity as only one third of our members retire every two years. We are thus able to build on our collective wisdom without having to start afresh after every general election.
I would further submit that on some matters this House should be given greater respect by the Executive than is the case now. For example, important issues like redrawing the boundaries of a State, or, for that matter, abolishing certain States, converting them into Union Territories is such a far-reaching proposal, far reaching legislation.
This House, being the Council of States, should be given more powers to deal with issues like that. The Government should consult with the Council of States much more effectively before such drastic measures can be considered by the House as a whole.
(Excerpted from the address in the Rajya Sabha on November 18, 2019)