No End to roadblock in the Rajya Sabha

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A Surya Prakash
One of the drawbacks of a bicameral Parliament in a federal state like India is that victory in a Parliamentary election to the Lower House does not necessarily and instantly translate into requisite Parliamentary strength to legislate and fulfill the promises made to the people. That is because, barring the Congress during the one-party rule era, no Government, which has come to power at the Centre after winning the Lok Sabha election, has enjoyed instant majority in the Upper House. Like many of his non-Congress predecessors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has had to cope with this harsh reality, which has resulted in a legislative logjam in the Upper House.
The Prime Minister has more than once referred to the manner in which the Opposition in the Upper House has stymied his Government’s legislative agenda. Last week, while addressing a rally in Bengaluru, he referred to the manner in which the Opposition had blocked the Triple Talaq Bill – The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill – and the Bill to grant Constitutional status to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) Commission. The OBC Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha in April 2017, and the Triple Talaq Bill in December 2017, but hit a road block in the upper House.
Several Prime Ministers have had to deal with this problem after the victory celebrations, when they realise that while they have the majority in the Lok Sabha, their adversaries command a majority in the Rajya Sabha. Then begins the arduous task of winning key State elections and improving the ruling party or coalition’s numbers in the Upper House via biennial elections to that House.
Many ruling parties or coalitions achieve some success in this regard in two rounds of biennial polls, but before the issue is clinched, they find that it is time for the next Lok Sabha election. They need to win that election too and also do well in the State Assembly elections if they are to attain majority in both the Houses. For most Prime Ministers, it becomes futile like the Sisyphean effort to push a boulder up a mountain. Every time Sisyphus got to the top, the boulder tumbled down. Ever since the two Houses were constituted in 1952, the Governments run by the Congress have enjoyed clear majority in the Rajya Sabha for most part of their tenures. Three Prime Ministers – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi – all from the same family – have commanded majority in the Rajya Sabha for a much of their years in office. Nehru enjoyed a majority throughout his tenure, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi had a majority for much of their time in office. Another Prime Minister, who had the requisite numbers in the upper House, was Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded Nehru. He inherited the 166 MPs the party had in this House at the time of Nehru’s death. On the other hand, Governments formed by other Prime Ministers or political parties and coalitions have not been so lucky. PV Narasimha Rao was unique because he not only had a minority in the Rajya Sabha, where his party’s strength hovered between 85 and 99, but he also had a minority (232 MPs) in the Lok Sabha – yet, he dismantled the pseudo-socialist policies of the Nehru-Gandhis and laid the foundations for India to emerge as an economic super power. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister for six years, but the strength of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) never rose beyond 50 in the Rajya Sabha during his tenure. Most significantly, after 1989, no Prime Minister has commanded a majority in the Rajya Sabha for almost 30 years. We need to take stock of this reality when a Prime Minister talks of how his legislative plans are stifled by the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. The year, 2018 will see biennial elections to the Rajya Sabha when one-third of this House will retire a few months from now. Currently, the BJP has 58 members in this House. With some of allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it can claim a strength of around 80 in the 245-member House. When Modi became the Prime Minister, the NDA had 57 MPs in this House. The NDA’s numbers are expected to rise after this round, but the Government may still fall short of a majority (123) in this House. The Modi Government’s woes began in 2014 itself when key economic reform measures were stalled during the Winter Session of 2014 in the Rajya Sabha. They were the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill and the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill. In April, 2017, the Rajya Sabha blocked the Bill which sought to provide Constitutional status to a commission for socially and educationally backward classes. In January 2018, the OBC Bill came back to the Lok Sabha after the Rajya Sabha considered the same and made several amendments. The Government tabled the Bill once again in the Lower House and said it wanted the House to negate the amendments made by the Rajya Sabha. So, currently, a political football is on over this Bill. The Triple Talaq Bill was cleared by the Lok Sabha on December 28, 2017. When it came before the Rajya Sabha, the Congress raised all kinds of objections and wanted it to be sent to a select committee.
The long and short of it is that two important legislative measures with great social import is stalled because the Government of the day does not have a majority in the upper House. When the Constituent Assembly examined this issue, there was an overwhelming support for a second chamber. However, the Constitution-makers provided for some contingencies. For example, it was laid down that while both Houses enjoyed equal rights, the Lok Sabha’s opinion would prevail in regard to money Bills.
Given the problems faced by successive Governments in seeing through their legislative measures in the Rajya Sabha, one wonders whether N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, who was a strong votary of the second chamber, failed to foresee what India’s oldest party would do seven decades hence, when he said they had taken care to ensure that the Rajya Sabha would not prove a clog either to legislation or administration. But this is exactly the problem that Prime Minister
Modi is facing today.
(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati)

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