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Parliamentary milestones: Rajya Sabha - A six-decade long journey
Numbers are not an issue for law making, but rising disruptions are a concern for the Upper House’s functioning
Rajya Sabha held its first session 68 years ago on May 13, 1952. The Constitution of India confers equal powers on both the Houses of Parliament except in a few cases like Money Bills which can only be introduced in the Lok Sabha. Only Lok Sabha can approve the Demands for Grants of the central government. The Rajya Sabha has to return such Bills within 14 days with or without amendments, failing which they will be treated as ‘deemed returned’. There have been 63 such incidents so far. Rajya Sabha too has some special powers. For making a law on the subjects of States and creating new All India Services, it has to first pass a resolution. Also, when Lok Sabha is dissolved, Rajya Sabha approves proclamations of emergency and President’s Rule.
Origin and mandate of Rajya Sabha
The ‘Council of States’ that Rajya Sabha is also known as, came into being only after a severe pre-natal scrutiny during the discussion in the Constituent Assembly on the need for a second chamber in 1949. The opponents contested that a second chamber was not at all necessary and it would be a creation of imperialism besides being a ‘clog in the wheel of progress’ by stultifying law making etc.
Counter arguments of its proponents like M Ananthasayanam Ayyangar and N Gopalaswami Ayyangar had won the case for a second chamber during the 8-day debate in the Constituent Assembly on the matter. They asserted that a second chamber will enable the ‘genius of the people of the country,’ a ‘free play in law making’ besides checking the hasty legislation likely to emanate from the passions of the moment in the other House and giving a ‘voice to the States’ in the federal chamber. That is broadly the mandate of Rajya Sabha.
Bicameralism is a principle that requires the consent of two differently constituted chambers of Parliament for making or changing the laws. The mode of elections to, the composition and tenures of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are different. While Lok Sabha gets dissolved periodically, Rajya Sabha marks continuity. By virtue of this, the Government of the day, formed on basis of its majority in the Lok Sabha, may not have the numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Given the broad equality of law making power, it would be instructive to find out if Rajya Sabha has proved to be ‘obstructionist’ in law making based on the numbers.
Numbers in Rajya Sabha
An analysis undertaken by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat has revealed that since the first General Elections in 1952, the Governments of the day had majority in Rajya Sabha for only 29 years and in minority for the remaining 39 years including the last 31 years at a stretch. What has been the impact of this?
Since its first sitting on May 13, 1952, the Rajya Sabha held 5,472 sittings and passed as many as 3,857 Bills, including several pioneering legislations, co-scripting socio-economic transformation of the country in concert with the Lok Sabha. This volume of legislation brings out the spirit of co-operation and camaraderie between the two Houses in matters of nation building. However, the Rajya Sabha had asserted its independence on some occasions.
So far, only three Joint Sittings of both the Houses were held to resolve differences between the two Houses in respect of laws. First, in 1961, when the Rajya Sabha rejected the Dowry Prohibition Bill, 1959 after it was passed by the other House. The then Government had majority in the Rajya Sabha at that time. This happened again in 1978 in respect of the Banking Services Commission (Repeal) Bill, 1977 and in 2002, when the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was rejected by the Rajya Sabha. The then Governments did not have the numbers in the Rajya Sabha on these two occasions.
Rajya Sabha differed with Lok Sabha on other occasions as well. It was taunted as regressive when the Constitution (Twenty-fourth Amendment) Bill, 1970 for abolition of privy purses to former rulers was rejected by it. Two Constitution Amendment Bills for empowering gram panchayats and municipalities were rejected by the Rajya Sabha in 1989. All these three Bills were, however, enacted later with both the Houses passing the same.
There were occasions when the Rajya Sabha delayed passing of some Bills including the Prevention of Corruption Bill, 1987. If these incidents amount to checking of hasty legislation, the Rajya Sabha had passed five Constitution Amendment Bills in one day on August 25, 1984 though the then Government did not have the numbers. Even in respect of Money Bills, there were instances when the amendments passed by the Rajya Sabha were accepted by the other House.
Despite the present Government not having the numbers, Rajya Sabha passed major Bills relating to introduction of GST, Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, Triple Talaq, Reorganisation of Jammu & Kashmir, Citizenship amendment etc. From this account, no case can be made to suggest that the Rajya Sabha has been ‘obstructionist’ in law making even as it asserted its independence on some occasions.
The real concern
However, ‘rising disruptions’ seem to be the major concern in the functioning of the Rajya Sabha. Till 1997, the productivity of Rajya Sabha has been 100% or above. It slid to 87% during 1998-2004, to 76% during 2005-19 and to 61% since 2015.
While the time spent by the Rajya Sabha on legislation has been around 29% of the functional time since 1952, the same in respect of the ‘Oversight’ function of the House has been a major cause of concern.
Time spent on ensuring the accountability of the executive has been steeply declining from 39.50% during 1978-2004 to 21.99% during 2005-2014 and to a low of 12.34% since 2015. This was primarily on account of the important Question Hour not being allowed due to disruptions.
The Rajya Sabha has been turning out to be more and more ‘deliberative’ spending more time on discussing issues of public importance. Time share in this regard has been rising from 33.54% during 1978-2004 to 41.42% during 2005-14 and to a high of 46.59% since 2015.
Disruptions also dent the quality of law making as seen in the passing of the Bills without discussion on several occasions. The trend of disruptions since 1998 should be a matter of concern for all the stakeholders. Political passions should not form the basis of such disruptions, if the perception is that they are. The line between disruption and obstruction is very thin. All sections of the Rajya Sabha have a stake in proper functioning of the House. The way forward is to let the House discuss, debate and decide on each issue. Let there be no disruption.
— The writer is the Vice-President of India, and Chairman, Rajya Sabha