The poser from Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who asked if the unelected Rajya Sabha could overrule the elected Lok Sabha, reflects the government’s frustration at the Opposition using its numbers in the Upper House to block showpiece legislation. With just 63 MPs in a House with 245 members, the NDA cannot force its way in the Rajya Sabha. Moreover, UPA floor managers have reached out to the Janata Parivar, the Left and regional parties to build a rainbow coalition that routinely checks — and trips up — the government in the House.
Used to its comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha, the government finds this irksome, and says as much. A combative Opposition now revels in the discomfort of the government and is in no mood to allow it to have its way. There are fundamental differences in matters like the land acquisition amendments, but in the case of many other pieces of legislation — for instance, the goods and services tax — there is ample scope for agreement.
However, Jaitley’s words indicate that the government is likely to stick with its combative approach rather than explore common ground with the Opposition. Moreover, his remark suggests that the Rajya Sabha may be assuming a role it is not mandated to play. Jaitley — incidentally, the leader of the Rajya Sabha — could have framed differently his apprehensions about the Opposition reducing the Upper House’s role to mere obstruction.
The Rajya Sabha as the House of elders, including members with domain expertise, is meant to look closely at legislation and, if necessary, advise and caution the Lower House. No one expects it to be a nodding assembly. To assume that a hierarchy exists between the two Houses and to insist on the superiority of the wisdom of the elected House is unlikely to fetch the NDA any friends in the Rajya Sabha.
The peculiar situation the Narendra Modi government finds itself in is not unique. The NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999 and the UPA of Manmohan Singh in 2004 lacked a majority in the Rajya Sabha. The floor managers of these alliances had to build a working relationship with the Opposition to pass laws.
However, BJP leaders, buoyed by the majority the party won in the Lok Sabha, seem reluctant to adopt the conciliatory language that coalitions speak out of necessity. They have frequently spoken about calling a joint session of Parliament to legislate. It may be wise for the party to go for a course correction and seek issue-based support from the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. The choice before the Modi government is to negotiate with the Opposition and pass laws, or go into policy paralysis. The latter is unlikely to help the party win elections.