Put the Rajya Sabha on steroids

Rajya Sabha membership now means party nomination. To be a truly empowered Council of States it needs direct elections.

Written by Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda | Published:December 17, 2010 12:09 am

The Rajya Sabha is often referred to by its erroneous nickname,the House of Elders,perhaps in deference to the UK’s House of Lords after which it was partially modelled. Its constitutionally correct nomenclature is in fact the Council of States,and reflects the other side of its roots,the US Senate. That seemingly minor difference hides an enormous chasm reflecting fundamentally different objectives. This ambiguity about its raison d’etre has always existed,but has grown over the years and now reached a crescendo.Earlier this week Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was reported to have said that the Rajya Sabha had become a “market” and should be abolished. His subsequently reported retraction could be due to political compulsions,but the comment has touched a nerve,coming at the end of the derailed winter session of Parliament,and deserves serious contemplation. He is right about some of the shortcomings of the Rajya Sabha,but wrong about the conclusion: throwing out the baby with the bathwater has never been a practical or desirable solution. Though our system of democracy is largely based on the UK’s Westminster parliamentary model,the Rajya Sabha is a curious blend of that country’s House of Lords and the US Senate. Like the former,neither does it have the authority to amend money bills,nor is it required for the basic objective of providing a majority for government formation. And like the latter,it represents the states of the union rather than individual constituencies,and has a rolling permanency,with one-third of its members elected every two years,that is not subject to the possibility of dissolution or mid-term elections.Ambedkar and his colleagues did a brilliant job of incorporating the best aspects of different political systems into our own Constitution,but stopped short of truly empowering the Rajya Sabha. Several of its original objectives have fared poorly over the years. The rolling permanency and indirect elections — from the state assemblies instead of the general public — were intended to provide a bulwark against extreme populism,but that role has got diluted and it is now just as populist as the Lok Sabha. The related objective of providing an entry to eminent but unelectable personalities has also been partially thwarted,with the majority of its members now being hardcore politicians,and some of the others exemplifying the ills that Chouhan highlighted.But we need to pause and wonder why we should need unelectable people as lawmakers anyway. It’s a legacy of colonial,even feudal times,when the citizenry had to be given the vote but still could not be trusted with a full set of keys to the house. This may sound counterintuitive,but the true safeguard against extreme populism is not less democracy,but more. Specifically,a system engineered to reward lawmakers — at least some of them,and the Rajya Sabha is ideal for these — to seek out centrist positions rather than extreme ones. For that to happen,the Rajya Sabha needs to evolve in the opposite direction than it has been in recent years. In the past decade,amendments passed by Parliament replaced the secret ballot for elections to the Rajya Sabha with an open ballot,subject to party whips,and removed the state residency requirement for candidates,thus fundamentally altering its character. Besides diluting its essence of representing states’ interests in New Delhi,Rajya Sabha membership has essentially become a party nomination rather than an election,even an indirect one. Almost without exception,Rajya Sabha members are now mostly party apparatchiks or even a few outsiders,but in any case subject only to the approval of party leaderships rather than even a rudimentary election. There are exceptions,of course,when parties’ varying strengths in state assemblies leave the odd Rajya Sabha seat up for grabs,but they are rare,and are tailor-made only for tycoons with a penchant for politics.Contrast that with the way the US Senate has evolved. While it too was originally elected from state legislatures,since the 17th Amendment to the US constitution in 1914 it has been directly elected by popular vote. Why was that amendment felt to be necessary? Political analyst Raffaela Wakeman has written that “the senatorial election procedures from before the passage of the 17th Amendment… lacked many features that are now associated with desirable democratic practice. In particular,the identities of viable US Senate candidates were often obscured until the eve of the election in the state legislatures… with the winner often emerging through backroom deals… giving frequent victory to Senate candidates who would have been incapable of winning a popular election in the states they represented.” The striking similarities between elections to our Rajya Sabha today and those to the pre-1914 US Senate are obvious. We desperately need an Indian equivalent of the US’s 17th Amendment. The consequent direct elections — and equally importantly,the large statewide constituencies — will push candidates towards greater moderation and statesmanship. Successful candidates will need to straddle the middle ground,instead of either just toeing party diktats or catering to the fringe.Such an empowered Rajya Sabha would be like an athlete on legally sanctioned steroids. Its greater capabilities would need to be matched with greater responsibilities,as in the US Senate,whose ratification is needed in key areas like foreign treaties and appointments to constitutional positions. Ironically,if corroboration is needed that the Rajya Sabha needs to become more like the American Senate than the British Lords,the latter is itself headed in the same direction. Lords’ reform has been gathering steam in the UK for years and is on the verge of a major breakthrough.

The writer is a BJD MP in the Lok Sabha,and was in the Rajya Sabha from 2000 to 2009

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