During outgoing Vice-President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu’s farewell on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi again raised concerns about the functioning of the House. He said that while the Rajya Sabha had every right to pass, reject or amend Bills referred to it by the Lok Sabha, stalling or blocking them did not suit a parliamentary democracy.
“This House certainly has the right to give assent or mark dissent on the bills which have come from the other House. This House can pass, reject, or amend them. But the concept of withholding or obstructing them is not in our democracy,” the PM said.
The BJP has 91 members in the Rajya Sabha at the moment, well short of the halfway mark of 119 in the 237-member House (eight seats are vacant in the Rajya Sabha, the total strength of which is 245). But it has not had trouble pushing through legislation with the help of parties such as the YSR Congress Party (nine MPs), the Biju Janata Dal (nine MPs), and the AIADMK (four members). In addition, there are seven members of smaller parties such as the Sikkim Democratic Front, the Republican Party of India, the Asom Gana Parishad, the National People’s Party, the Mizo National Front, and the United People’s Party.
The lack of numbers on its own has not prevented the party from passing contentious Bills — such as the farm laws (now repealed), the Bill banning instant triple talaq, and the Constitutional amendment bill bifurcating Jammu and Kashmir into union territories — through deft floor management.
Monday’s speech is not the first time Modi has raised concerns about the functioning of the House of Elders. In 2019, while addressing the Rajya Sabha on the occasion of its 250th session, the PM said the Rajya Sabha was about checks and balances and was “absolutely essential” for Indian democracy. “Debates have to be many and effective. But, there is also a difference between checking and clogging (and between) balance and blocking,” he added.
In 2017, the PM lashed out at Opposition members in the Upper House for stalling a Bill that sought to accord constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes, questioning why they stopped its passage in the Rajya Sabha when it aims to benefit backward castes. The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Third Amendment) Bill, 2017, was passed by both Houses of Parliament the following year, granting constitutional status to the body.
Two years earlier, during a debate in the Rajya Sabha on “Commitment to the Constitution”, Modi quoted N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, who was a member of the Constitution drafting committee, as saying that the Upper House had the responsibility of ensuring it does not create hurdles in the law making-process and administrative functioning.
The PM is not the only person in the BJP to have expressed reservations about the Rajya Sabha’s functioning. During a gridlock in Parliament in 2016, the then BJP MP from Kurukshetra, Raj Kumar Saini, expressed the extreme view that the Rajya Sabha should be abolished “as it serves no purpose”. Saini made a similar comment the following year, saying the Rajya Sabha had done nothing except stalling legislative work and “causing severe damage” to the country.
In 2015, the late Arun Jaitley, then the union finance minister, said that “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 made the comment while responding to criticism of an alleged move to slip in legislation as a Money Bill to bypass the Rajya Sabha.
Jaitley was responding to criticism of alleged moves to slip in legislation as a Money Bill so it could bypass Rajya Sabha. While a Bill may be introduced in either House of Parliament, a Money Bill cannot be introduced in the Upper House. It can only be introduced in the Lok Sabha with the prior recommendation of the President for introduction in the Lower House. If there is any dispute over whether a Bill is a Money Bill or not, the final decision lies with the Speaker and it is not open to challenge. Former Vice-President Hamid Ansari had earlier decried the “liberal interpretation” of what constitutes a Money Bill and gave an informal call to not allow the dignity of the Rajya Sabha to be eroded.
Constituent Assembly debates
The broader question of the relevance and usefulness of a second chamber was discussed in the Constituent Assembly.
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 Upper House were not an irritant but 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.
Perhaps the first instance of conflict between the two Houses came in 1953 after CC Biswas, Leader of the 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 the 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…”