Debating India

Upper House, upper hand

Friday 31 March 2006, by CHATTERJEE*Manini

Lok Sabha was once the prestige route to politics. Rajya Sabha has the cache now

As another assortment of cabinet ministers and corporate czars, dons and divas enter the Rajya Sabha on April 2, reading the Constituent Assembly debates on the ?Council of States’ can be both amusing and saddening. The Union Constitution Committee, set up by the Constituent Assembly under the chairmanship of Jawaharlal Nehru, presented its report to the Assembly on July 21, 1947, and it was discussed a week later.

At that very first discussion itself, questions were raised about the necessity of having a second chamber of Parliament - with its indirectly elected and nominated members - in independent, democratic India. Strongly objecting to the idea, Mohammad Tahir felt the “Council of States nominations and Upper House were creations of Imperialism” and should be done away with.

Shibban Lal Saksena was equally critical. “I wish to point out,” he said, “that our experience in the last so many years has been that the Upper House acts as a clog in the wheel of progress. I do not think it is very wise to continue the same thing again in our new Constitution.”

Their objections were overruled. Replying to the debate, Gopalswamy Ayyangar maintained that a second chamber could play a useful role. Its job was to hold “dignified debates on important issues and to delay legislation which might be the outcome of passions of the moment...” It would also bring to Parliament representatives of provinces and the soon-to-be integrated princely states.

But there was no ambiguity in anyone’s mind that the “vitality and vigour” of democracy was embodied in the Lok Sabha. Ayyangar declared that “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 Council of States, it is the view of the House of the People that shall prevail.”

In January 1949, when the draft constitution came up for detailed discussion, that point was reiterated in an amusing way. Mohammad Tahir, still unhappy about the second chamber, had moved an amendment objecting to the description of the Lok Sabha as ?Lower House’ and Rajya Sabha as ?Upper House.’

Rejecting the amendment, Rohini Kumar Chaudhuri assured him that “practically speaking as is known to everybody, the Lower House means really the Upper House”. It was far more powerful and prestigious. But since members of the Rajya Sabha were not going to get the powers which is exercised by ordinary members of the Lower House, “you must console them by calling them members of the Upper House... as a matter of courtesy we should call them Upper House because we are not giving them any privileges.

Nearly sixty years later, Mohammad Tahir perhaps deserves an apology. For, far from being a semantic sop, the Upper House is fast assuming the upper hand as well.

Sure, Lok Sabha still has all the financial powers and the power to make and unmake governments. But the prestige that it once enjoyed, the importance accorded to a Lok Sabha MP, who was directly elected by the people and answerable to them, is slowly being devalued as more and more “influential” as well as “serious” politicians prefer to enter Parliament through the Rajya Sabha route.

Indira Gandhi may have been the first prime minister to be a Rajya Sabha member but within a year she fought and won from Rae Bareli - and stuck to the Lower House for the rest of her life. When her sons joined politics, both were encouraged to contest direct elections, as did Sonia Gandhi and her son in later years.

During the Nehru era and after, most important cabinet posts went to Lok Sabha MPs. Pranab Mukherjee was the first RS member to get the finance portfolio in 1982 - a good 30 years after the formation of the first elected cabinet. Prodded by Indira Gandhi, Mukherjee tried his luck at the hustings in 1977 and 1980 but failed to win a Lok Sabha seat. Finally making it to the Lok Sabha in 2004, Mukherjee is the first to concede that no matter how erudite the debates, the Upper House was never considered the ideal abode of “real political activists”.

No longer. Forget the corporate honchos and media barons who have neither the time nor ability to contest elections. Even full-time politicians no longer think twice about lobbying for a Rajya Sabha seat. And RS membership is no longer a handicap to get top posts within their parties or government.

Besides Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, powerful cabinet ministers - Arjun Singh, Shivraj Patil, H.R. Bharadwaj, Sushil Shinde, Ambika Soni - all belong to the Upper House. So does the BJP president Rajnath Singh and almost his entire top brass, including Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Jaswant Singh, Venkaiah Naidu. The parliamentary wing may be subservient to the party organisation in the CPM, but with high-profile politburo members Sitaram Yechury and Brinda Karat in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House MPs definitely exercise more power within the party than their grassroots Lok Sabha counterparts.

The rising clout of Rajya Sabha within Parliament, however, is not just about names and numbers. It reflects the growing disinclination of politicians to engage with the risks and mess of mass politics. In this coalition era of unstable governments, many have begun to prefer a “secure” six-year tenure to the uncertainties of a Lok Sabha term. It also frees them of “constituency pressure” - the daily grind of an LS MP who has to look after the needs of a demanding electorate that runs into lakhs. And with no constituency to nurse, no polls to fear, the Elders can devote all their energies to networking and strategising and climbing the political ladder without facing the old bias against their ilk.

In the bargain, the essence of India’s democracy stands at risk. In 1993, rallies were banned on the Boat Club lawns facing Parliament - denying ordinary people the most eloquent setting for popular protest. Then, successive Election Commissioners sought to take the colour and vibrancy out of India’s greatest secular mela - the general elections. And now, the “vitality and vigour” of the House of the People itself is in the danger of getting sapped as the political class shifts its preference to the House of New Lords.

See online : The Indian Express

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