Rajya Sabha polls: Council of States acts as a bulwark against populist moves, saves govt from hasty decisions

The Rajya Sabha goes to polls on Tuesday to fill up vacancies that have arisen as a result of certain members retiring, passing away or resigning. This is a good opportunity to take a look at the Upper House of the Parliament that has grown increasingly significant during the past few years.

India's Parliament consists of three entities. The Lok Sabha or the House of the People, which is a popularly elected House for which elections are held every five years. The Government of India is required to maintain the confidence of this House in order for it to hold office. The Second is the Rajya Sabha or the Council of States. Members of this House are not directly elected but are nominated by the assemblies of the states. This House never dissolves but one-third of its members retire every two years triggering an election. The third is, of course, the Office of the President of India who is not only a part of the Parliament but also the constitutional head of the Union Executive.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

The General Election to Lok Sabha, which takes place every five years, generate much favour across the country as elections are held pan-India wide. However, if we already have a popular House, there is a need to understand the role of the second chamber of the Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, and how it works in our constitutional scheme.

The idea of a bicameral Parliament is not a new one in India. The Government of India Act, 1919 created a bicameral central legislature with the introduction of the House of Assembly and the Council of State. The limit of a Council of State was fixed for five years but after the Government of India Act, 1935, the House was made one that never dissolves with one-third of its members retiring every three years. These houses were later succeeded by the Constituent Assembly and further became the Parliament as we now know today.

Currently, members of the Rajya Sabha are elected to sit for six years. They are elected by state legislatures by means of a single transferable vote. In this system, the legislators rank their candidates by an order of preference (similar to how the Parliament recently elected the vice-president) and the winning candidates occupy that state's seats in the Rajya Sabha. Each state has a certain allocation of seats and this is specified in the Constitution's Fourth Schedule. There is a total of 233 members of the Rajya Sabha who are elected from the states and twelve members who are nominated by the President of India bringing the composition of the house to 245.

In order for a bill to become a law, it has to be passed by both houses of the Parliament and receive the assent of the President. The bill though can originate either in the Rajya Sabha or the Lok Sabha, except for a money bill. A money bill is a kind of bill that affects either debits or credits to the Consolidated Fund of India and the Lok Sabha speaker is the final authority on whether or not a bill is a money bill. Therefore, except for money bills, the Rajya Sabha enjoys full legislative powers. Though the Rajya Sabha is required to revert on money bills within fourteen days of the Lok Sabha passing it, if it fails to do so, the bill is deemed to be passed.

The Rajya Sabha is only empowered to suggest revision amendments to a money bill but even if all amendments are rejected by the Lok Sabha, the money bill is still considered passed. The Constitution, therefore, gives the power of the purse exclusively to the Lok Sabha, the logic being that since it's the people's House it should have the sole power of directing how the people's money is spent. Furthermore, the ability to block finance can be used to stall the government machinery, therefore, the power is exercised by the House where the government is required to maintain a majority. Needless to say, the failure to pass a money bill often triggers the resignation of the government.

In case the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha cannot agree on a bill, then a joint sitting of Parliament is held and the bill passes by a simple majority vote. The members in the Lok Sabha will always outnumber the members in the Rajya Sabha, therefore this shifts the balance of power in the favour of the Lower House.

Then why have the Rajya Sabha at all? If the Rajya Sabha has no real power to pass the legislation it wants, then there seems to be no purpose at all for this second chamber of the Parliament. However, the second chamber serves a very important function. This was best outlined by Gopalswami Ayyangar who in the Constituent Assembly had this to say about the role of the second chamber:

"The need for (a) second chamber had been felt practically all over the world wherever there are federations of any importance. After all, the question for us to consider is whether it performs any useful function. The most that we expect the second chamber to do is perhaps to hold dignified debates on important issues and to delay legislation which might be the outcome of passions of the moment until the passions have subsided and calm consideration could be bestowed on the measures which will be before the Legislature; and we shall take care to provide in the Constitution that whenever on any important matter, particularly matters relating to finance, there is conflict between the House of the People and the Council of States, it is the view of the House of the People that shall prevail. Therefore, what we really achieve by the existence of this Second Chamber is only an an instrument by which we delay action which might be hastily conceived, and we also give an opportunity, perhaps to seasoned people who may not be in the thickest of political fray, but who might be willing to participate in the debate with an amount of learning and importance which we do not ordinarily associate with a House of the People. That is all that is proposed in regard to this second chamber. I think, 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."

The Rajya Sabha exists to take a second look at legislations and its job is to act as a key revising chamber. While the Lok Sabha ends up being very political as the government and the Opposition fight it out there, the Rajya Sabha is expected to look at matters of national importance with a dispassionate view and a detached outlook. Its composition is expected to be made of senior statesmen who can bring their knowledge and experience to the functioning of the government. The Rajya Sabha also has a key role in protecting the interests of state governments who may be affected by the central legislation. Thus, the Rajya Sabha serves as an effective check against too much populism that would control the government.

File image of Ahmed Patel. PTI

File image of Ahmed Patel. PTI

The Rajya Sabha also has certain unique powers. It can call for the creation of an All India Service under Article 312 of the Constitution by passing a two-thirds resolution to that effect. This includes the power to create an All India Judicial Service. All India services are those which are under both the Union and the state and since the Rajya Sabha represents the states, it can express their consent to the proposal by such a resolution.

Article 249 also empowers the Rajya Sabha to pass a two-thirds resolution empowering the Parliament to make laws on certain matters in the exclusive domain of the states. This resolution needs to be renewed annually for the law to have force.

Currently, the Opposition has a majority in the Rajya Sabha. The Government is looking at taking control of both houses in order to move its legislative agenda speedily. This current round of elections is for seventeen seats in the Rajya Sabha. Ten ordinary elections and seven by elections caused by unforeseen vacancies. While this may not do much to upset the composition of the House, the next set of elections for the Rajya Sabha involving states where the BJP has just come to power may affect and alter the composition greatly. The second chamber should ideally not toe the government line and be a bulwark against populist moves. The Rajya Sabha elections are, therefore, a set of elections that need to be watched with great scrutiny.

Updated Date: Aug 07, 2017 22:03 PM

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