I read with interest a piece by BJD MP Baijayant Panda on the subject of Rajya Sabha reform. Two reactions that were predictably thrown up. One says we need to reform. The other says we don't. Reform these days is the in word. Easy to wield. As a club. Anyone who opposes the idea is dubbed anti-reform etc. Before we get into it, one needs to question. Why do we need reform in the Rajya Sabha?
Reforms need a reason. Merely because it is uncomfortable to the current ruling dispensation is not reason enough. Keep in mind that a minority government run by the Congress managed to get bills passed both in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Sure, it wasn’t as productive as it could be. Fact is, till the BJP was on the ascendant, things were proceeding pretty smoothly with several key bills getting passed. It was the rise of an aggressive BJP seeking run roughshod over other views that brought such a logjam.
Mr Panda gives us two options and only two. This conditions the reader to be blinded to the fact that there are other options available. One of them being, "no change". One of the things, Mr Panda, touched upon was the 2003 amendment. Something he didn't mention was that it was enacted by the then BJP led NDA government. This stopped secret voting, allowing whips and anti-defection law to be enforced. Another option could be to go back to the pre-2003 situation.
Now you have four options, instead of just two. Mr. Panda makes the argument that certain western countries (Italy, UK, US) did it. US. Italy is a country where a former PM can be prosecuted. UK is country where an MP can be hauled up for mis-spending. US is a country where former State Governors go to jail. In India, convicted murderers get bail depending on who is in power and our Governors demonise citizens of India basis their religion. Clearly, comparisons with mature western democracies is a bit out of place.
Given that comparison has been drawn, we'll wade into that as well, a bit later. In the meanwhile, keep in mind, that the key examples of ‘reform’ (1911, 1949 UK & 1913 US) Mr Panda highlighted, were known to the framers of the Indian constitution in the late 1940s.
Coming to the two arguments presented. When shorn of the verbiage and read in conjunction with the BJP (Since Mr Jaitley mooted the idea first) manifesto (simultaneous Assembly and Parliamentary elections) and poll tactics (Personality based shock and awe campaign spend), they are actually the same option. ie converting India into a presidential form of government.
The very purpose of the Upper House according to Mr Panda is that it brings long term perspective. Also, if you read the constituent assembly debates, one of the roles of the Upper House was to serve as a method of slowing down legislation. This coupled with staggered election from the states, insulates the Parliament from frenzies. Prevents hijacking of legislature by waves like anti-incumbency or personality cults.
Going further, nothing stops the party in control of LS from giving a good and consistent performance at the center and then taking control of the states and eventually controlling the RS, obviating the need tame the RS. Clearly that is a lost cause as far as the current dispensation goes.
He cites Italy as an example, but downplays the fact that the so called Italian reform actually calls for making the entire house upper house un-elected. So provincial governors and people appointed by the president will be part of the upper house. In that sense, the Upper house is even less representative than it is currently.
He cites the UK example, where the upper house was stripped of its powers to stop any bill. Keep in mind (as Mr Panda acknowledges), that the upper house in the UK is not elected at all. Hence, they have a weaker claim on being able to legislate and not really comparable. However, the point he skims is that the 1911 and 1949 amendments require the bills passed under it, to say so explicitly and historically have been sparingly used.
Most interestingly, he also cites the US example of a direct election, how it became broad based etc, while cleverly omitting the fact that in the US system, the party cannot issue a whip. Not even in the lower house. So whether directly or indirectly elected, the ability of the party to influence the member is limited. Unless the plan is to overhaul the entire system, including no-whips, secret ballot et al. Not sure, where this example is headed.
Is Mr. Panda suggesting that parties (and thereby party bosses) duly elected in the state don’t represent the interests of the people? Or that, it is the preserve of only the party that came to power in the Lok Sabha Elections?
The running theme in this debate kicked off by Mr Jaitley is that only LS is seized of wisdom and RS, a voice of parties in the states have anything further to add to a debate. The fact that the states are able to stand up to the central govt of the day shows that there are people who might have a different point of view. Both the two solutions presented, seek to rob them of that power. It also lays ground to marginalise smaller regional parties as they would have lesser resources to fight another parliamentary battle.
Lastly coming to the provocative headline of the post by Mr Panda: Less check, more balance: Reforms must reduce Rajya Sabha’s power to block the popular mandate, unparalleled globally
In case of the second part, it’s clear that Mr.Panda has never heard of or purposely chosen to ignore the filibuster in the US senate, through which a group of committed senators can stall legislation indefinitely.
As to the first part, regarding less check and more balance, I quote Dr Ambedkar: "The Parliamentary system differs from a non-Parliamentary system in as much as the former is more responsible than the latter but they also differ as to the time and agency for assessment of their responsibility. Under the Non-Parliamentary system, such as the one that exists in the United States of America, the assessment of the responsibility of the executive is periodic. It takes place once in two years. It is done by the electorate. In England, where the Parliamentary System prevails, the assessment of responsibility of the executive is both daily and periodic. The daily assessment is done by members of Parliament, through questions, resolutions, no-confidence motions, adjournment motions and debates on Addresses. Periodic assessment is done by the electorate at the time of the election-which may take place every five years or earlier. The daily assessment of responsibility which is not available under the American system is, it is felt far more effective than the periodic assessment and far more necessary in a country like India.
The Draft Constitution in recommending the Parliamentary System of executive has preferred more responsibility to more stability." The last line clearly goes fly against the idea both Mr Jaitley and Mr. Panda are suggesting.
The 2003 amendment, more than anything emasculated the RS. Now BJP wants to go even further? The PM has already emasculated the entire cabinet. What’s next? Abolish parliament sessions, because they are the party in power and opposition is noisy? Where does this stop? Abolishing democracy?
(The author of this article is Chirag, a technology entrepreneur with a more than passing interest in politics.)