The Role of Rajya Sabha in Indian Polity


In the Constituent Assembly debates we find a set of four distinct reasons advanced in defence of the Rajya Sabha. From these debates, we can find out what kind of roles Rajya Sabha is expected to accomplish and how it has fared so far.

Parliament of India building. Image

The following is a brief discussion on the role of Rajya Sabha and whether a reform is necessary in this Upper House of Parliament.

Review and Revaluation Role

Some members of the Assembly saw it as a House of reflective and evaluative reasoning removed from the hurry-scurry of everyday life.

N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar termed it as the House which can rein in “passions of the moment”. Lokanath Mishra described it as “a sobering House, a reviewing House, a House standing for quality and the members will be exercising their right to be heard on the merits of what they say, for their sobriety and knowledge of special problems; quantity, that is, their number, is not much of moment”. In the same vein, M. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar thought that in such a platform of reflective consideration, “the genius of people may have full play”, and it can make place for people “who may not be able to win a popular mandate”.

Ensuring Accountability of the Government

Second, apart from the review and revaluation role, there was a broad consensus in the Assembly for the need for a second legislative chamber to initiate proposals for public policy, to elicit responsiveness from public authority, and to hold governments accountable. The constitutional provisions on division of work between the Houses clearly bear it out. However, in this conception, the Rajya Sabha largely duplicates the functions of the Lok Sabha and therefore, in the words of Abbé Sieyès, turns out to be “superfluous”.

Accommodating Diversity

A third conception saw the House as the authoritative platform to accommodating diversity, although much of this consideration laid emphasis on political diversity reflecting federal arrangements, drawing parallels with the United States in the process. In this conception while the Lower House was meant to represent the citizen-community at large, the Upper House, primarily voted in by elected members of the State Assemblies, would represent the nation “as a differentiated whole”.

A unique response to the distinct historical and cultural contexts of a polity it is called upon to represent

There was a fourth conception of the House, which was not lucidly spelt out in the Constituent Assembly debates, although it could be read on the sidelines again and again, captured by the late L.M. Singhvi in the phrase “the grand inquest of the nation”. While this conception saw diversity as an essential ingredient that should inform the Upper House in India, it saw diversity not necessarily wholly encompassed by federal arrangements. Such a condition called for a very distinct overlapping representation through the Upper House. Such a conception owed much to the principle that while all representative democracies have a predictable role for the House, elected through universal adult franchise, the Upper House is a unique response to the distinct historical and cultural contexts of a polity it is called upon to represent.

Formal tasks exclusive to the Rajya Sabha

  1. The power to transfer a subject from the State List to Union List for a specified period;
  2. To create additional All-India Services; and
  3. To endorse Emergency under Article 352 for a limited period when the Lok Sabha remains dissolved.

While the Rajya Sabha does not have the power to approve money bills, it can offer its own suggestions on them.

Further, while it has no representation in the Estimates Committee, its members have a proportionate share in all other committees of the Parliament, including those closely linked with financial dealings such as the Public Accounts Committee, Committee on Public Undertakings and the Standing Committees related to Ministries/Departments.

The domicile requirement of the members of Rajya Sabha mandated by the Representation of the People Act, 1951 has been removed by the five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in 2006 in Kuldip Nayar v. Union of India and Others. This has led to the thinning out of difference between the two Houses of the Indian Parliament, except for the mode of selection of its members. However, this does not make the Rajya Sabha superfluous.

What is it that the Rajya Sabha can do than what it is doing today?

A forum such as the Rajya Sabha can be the voice of sanity, of the excluded, and of citizen rights. It can ensure, at least to the extent constitutional provisions go, that the majoritarian thrust of the Lower House does not undermine rule of law and public institutions. It is to the credit of the Rajya Sabha that it has come to play this role at critical junctures, and particularly in the present.

But is it enough? In this context it might be important that the nature and role of the Rajya Sabha be revisited, rather than merely think of it as the parking lot for those who cannot ensure their election from a popular constituency.

Direction of reform

In addition to its present role of representation and accountability, the Rajya Sabha could be the House that represents difference in our polity, difference marked not merely by its culture but its diversity.

Difference in India is encoded not merely around regions, languages, and communities but also in its inegalitarian social relations. Representation through federal units hardly captures these multiple and often overlapping differences. There are some constituencies which will never be able to ensure their adequate representation through the electoral route: Muslims; women; linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity; regions such as the Northeast and Jammu & Kashmir; urban informal labour; the rural poor, just to name a few constituencies.

There are probably ways to shape representation that reaches out and connects to nodal concerns without being overwhelming. And, we should try to find them out as soon as possible.

This article is just a summary and reproduction of an article by Valerian Rodrigues published in The Hindu. Read the original article.

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