Fewer checks than balance, possible?

Reforms must reduce Rajya Sabha’s power to block the popular mandate.

On October 2015, Italy’s upper house of Parliament, the Senate, voted to drastically reduce its own powers, including its number of members and its power to block constitutional amendments and other key legislation.

An unimaginable piece of news which should have made us sit up and think but, unfortunately, we are accustomed to our version of chaotic governance. However, when on August 2015 finance minister Arun Jaitley suggested a relook at Rajya Sabha’s powers, it led to a furore from many quarters. Those objections continue but in an unthinking, unreasonable way. It is important that the issue is examined dispassionately.

Democracies are crucially dependent on checks and balances. Thus, there are very good reasons for having a bicameral legislature, with one house representing the popular will of the day, and the other, with a longer perspective, exercising restraint against a potentially uncontrollable mob mentality.

Governance in India is caught in a logjam of far too many checks and not enough balance. Nowhere else in the world are there as many legislative checks against the popular mandate of the electorate.

Joint Parliamentary sessions is not a solution as they are not practical to held frequently and it cannot pass constitutional amendments. And structuring major legislation as money bills solely to bypass the Rajya Sabha is undesirable.

In theory, Rajya Sabha is supposed to represent the interests of states as a whole. But in practice, what it really represents are the interests of parties, in fact of party leadership. Other democracies have faced and resolved similar problems.

Our founding father didn’t foresee how political parties in India are going to do politics seventy years down the line over petty issues; forgetting about the nation and its interest. They waste taxpayers money and keep stalling important public bills in the house.

On January 2016, I asked former Supreme Court judge Justice N. Santosh Hedge about his views on the role of Rajya Sabha in the present circumstances?

He briefly told me that, “The Rajya Sabha, like in the United Kingdom’s political system, is the House of elders. Since we have not imposed any educational qualifications on the candidates, who are contesting for elections, they thought of an Upper House in the would be Parliament. The idea was, if Lok Sabha, the lower House, did something wrong the Rajya Sabha would correct it. If I understand the constitutional provisions, the Rajya Sabha was formed to advise the Lok Sabha when in need. It should actually be an intellectual body. People who are elected to be a part of the Upper House are more people who have excelled in their professions.”

Today, it is all about having party representation there. Anybody can buy a Rajya Sabha seat today. And I am deliberately using the word “buy” because I am aware of incidents in which people have gone to the Rajya Sabha and done nothing for the benefit of the public”.

It is instructive to consider how other democracies deal with these systemic issues. For instance, the UK, on whose model our parliamentary democracy system is based on. Till a century ago, its House of Lords could reject all bills except money bills, just like our Rajya Sabha today. However, in 1911 the Brits amended this, reducing its powers from being able to block legislation to only delay it up to two years. Then again in 1949, the House of Lords’ powers were further diluted, so that today, with minor exceptions, all it can do is delay legislation for up to a year.

This is an aspect on which the present debate in India suffers from much confusion. India needs to break its systemic legislative deadlock. Emulating the UK or Italy would leave the Rajya Sabha electoral process intact, but reduce its powers. It would still have the ability to slow down the passage of bills, to ensure that those who win elections don’t ride over the losers. But it would no longer have the power to indefinitely block legislation, thus ensuring that those who lose elections don’t have a veto either.