Last week, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said “it (was) a serious question in a parliamentary democracy wherein Bill after Bill, the wisdom of a directly elected House is questioned by the indirectly elected House”.
Jaitley was responding to criticism of alleged moves to slip in legislation as a Money Bill so it could bypass Rajya Sabha. Chairman Hamid Ansari had earlier decried the “liberal interpretation” of what constituted a Money Bill, and given an informal call to not allow the dignity of Rajya Sabha to be eroded.
On the specific point of what constitutes a Money Bill, the Constitution is clear that the final decision lies with the Speaker. This decision is not open to challenge.
The broader question of the relevance and usefulness of a second chamber was discussed in the Constituent Assembly and, 63 years after the Council of States was born, continues to provoke debate.
During the discussion on the report of the Union Constitution Committee, it was argued both that a second chamber would be a “clog in the wheel of progress”, as well as that it would be truly representative of the vast diversity of India.
Replying to the debate, N Gopalaswami Ayyangar made a case for balance: “The most that we expect the Second Chamber to do is perhaps hold dignified debates on important issues and to delay legislation which might be the outcome of passions of the moment…, and we also give an opportunity, perhaps, to seasoned people… who might be willing to participate in the debate… 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.”
For the founding fathers, then, delays in routing legislation through the second chamber were not an irritant, rather an essential feature and function of the parliamentary system, providing more opportunities for scrutiny, creating an atmosphere of greater executive accountability, and essentially complementing the first chamber in its work. At the same time, they were keen to ensure that important legislation did not suffer as a result of attempts to meet these objectives.
The Constituent Assembly adopted the motion on July 28, 1947, and the Council of States was constituted on April 3, 1952. The name Rajya Sabha was adopted on August 23, 1954.
The Constitution proceeds on the principle of equality of status between the Houses. However, some provisions laying down special functions for Lok Sabha put limits on the powers of Rajya Sabha — this is mainly in the procedure of passing a Money Bill. Also, while a Minister may belong to either House, as Minister, a member of Rajya Sabha is responsible to Lok Sabha; and at a joint session of Parliament, Rajya Sabha is at a disadvantage by reason of its smaller size.
However, Rajya Sabha enjoys two special powers — drawing essentially from the nature of India’s federal system — that Lok Sabha does not have.
The Centre may legislate temporarily on a matter in the State List [Article 249(1)], and create All-India Services common to the Centre and states [Article 312(1)], but in both cases the Council of States must first decide by two-thirds majority that doing so is “necessary or expedient in the national interest”.
Perhaps the first instance of conflict between the two Houses came in 1953, after C C Biswas, Leader of Rajya Sabha and Jawaharlal Nehru’s law minister, made some remarks about the Speaker’s decision to certify the Indian Income Tax (Amendment) Bill, 1952, as a Money Bill. The matter was resolved after Nehru intervened. Speaking in Rajya Sabha on May 6, 1953, he also explained the equality of status between the Houses, its philosophical basis and contours.
“…Parliament consists of two Houses, each functioning in the allotted sphere laid down in the Constitution. We derive authority from that Constitution… To call either of these Houses an Upper House or a Lower House is not correct… Neither House by itself constitutes Parliament. It is the two Houses together that are the Parliament of India… There can be no constitutional differences between the two Houses, because the final authority is the Constitution itself. That Constitution treats the two Houses equally, except in certain financial matters which are to be the sole purview of the House of the People…”
An indication that the current government does not consider Rajya Sabha inferior lies in the fact that several key ministerial portfolios are with members of the Council: Finance, Defence, Telecom & IT, Environment, HRD, Railways, Oil and Gas, Commerce, Power and Coal, and Minority Affairs among them. Jaitley himself is Leader of Rajya Sabha.
Vice President Krishan Kant said on one occasion: “… In Rajya Sabha, the House of Continuity and in the Lok Sabha, a House of Change, we have a splendid blend of change and continuity… That is the Indian tradition, that is our dharma.”