More than the house of lords

By Inder Jit

(Released on 22 Nov. 1983)

It is time the Rajya Sabha played the specific role specifically envisaged for it by the founding fathers of the Constitution. Thirty-three years after it came into being, the Rajya Sabha regrettably continues to be what it is not: a Second Chamber or an Upper House. True, our Parliamentary system is largely modeled on the Westminster pattern. However, it is not merely a House of Elders like the House of Lords. (It is a lot more. Nehru clarified this as early as 1953 when a controversy erupted in regard to the respective powers of the two Houses. He then stated: “Under our Constitution, Parliament consists of two Houses, each functioning in the allotted sphere laid down in the Constitution… sometimes we refer to the practice and convention prevailing in the United Kingdom.. Our guide must, however, be our own Constitution… To call either of these Houses as Upper House or a Lower House is not correct. Neither House by itself constitutes Parliament. It is the two Houses together that are the Parliament of India.”

These thoughts are prompted by certain recent happenings in the States raising basic issues of Centre-State relations. Prominent among these is the Moily scandal, or the latest brazen bid by the Congress-I to topple the Ramakrishna Hegde Ministry in Karnataka. Qualitatively different but no less important in our federal polity is New Delhi’s recent move to replace the sales tax (a state subject) on vanaspati, drugs and medicines, cement, paper and paper board by additional excise duty. Both the subjects, for instance, require the Rajya Sabha’s pointed attention in the interest of harmonious functioning of Centre-State relations. Yet, the bizarre happening in Karnataka, which raises several fundamental issues, has not received adequate attention of the House. A one-day debate, interrupted by a two-and-a-half hour discussion on a private member’s bill, is hardly enough by any standard. There has been no discussion on the issue of sales tax and excise duty in the Rajya Sabha. What is worse, the thought of such a debate does not seem to have even crossed the Government’s mind or that of the Opposition.

The Rajya Sabha as the Council of States represents the federal principle in our polity even if the House does not have certain powers of the Lok Sabha. It cannot, for instance, pass a vote of no confidence and make or unmake Governments. The Council of Ministers is not required to resign in case it is defeated on the floor of the House, unlike in the case of the Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha’s powers in regard to financial matters and the budget are also much less. Nevertheless, the Rajya Sabha enjoys certain special powers vis-à-vis the Lok Sabha which add to its importance in our federal set-up. The Constitution, for instance, bars the Lok Sabha from legislating in regard to matters specified in the State list. But the Rajya Sabha is specially entitled under Article 249 to make it lawful for Parliament to “enact in the national interest” legislation in regard to any matter in the State list for the whole or part of India. Further, it alone can empower Parliament to create in the national interest one or more all India services, as was done in 1961 and in 1965.

Such confusion in regard to the respective powers of the two Houses has been created by the fact that the Lok Sabha is elected directly and the Rajya Sabha indirectly — by the State Assemblies. Most people, including many in the Press corps, therefore, tend to consider the Lok Sabha members to be “more representative”. But all of themand many others ignore the basic scheme of the Constitution under which the founding fathers deliberately opted for indirect election to the Rajya Sabha from electoral colleges comprising the State legislatures. Indirect election was intended to help induct experienced and seasoned persons from different walks of life into the House — stalwarts who would normally be disinclined to face the rough and tumble of a poll battle. Indeed, it is not generally remembered that even the minimum age requirement for the Rajya Sabha is designed to bring into the House comparatively experienced persons. The Constitution provides a minimum age limit of 30 for the Rajya Sabha as against 25 for the Lok Sabha. Not without reason, Nehru always took special note of what was said in the Rajya Sabha.

This casts on the Rajya Sabha a special responsibility to thrash out the basic issues concerning the States, such as the one raised by the Moily scandal which has appropriately provoked the Karnataka Chief Minister, Mr. Hegde, to pointedly ask: Are lawfully and democratically elected State Governments to be allowed to function without let or hindrance? Is it democratic and constitutional to subvert the mandate of the people by illegal and immoral means like bribery through black money? Is the country to be ruled at the Centre and in the States by one party? The Moily scandal did come up in the Lok Sabha and in the Rajya Sabha. But it did so only indirectly — in the Lok Sabha through a discussion on electoral reforms with reference to Karnataka development and in the Rajya Sabha likewise through a calling attention notice on the need for urgent electoral reforms. This robbed the debate of much of its sharpness and purposefulness even though the Rajya Sabha members, unlike those of the Lok Sabha, were able to name the principal actors in Karnataka’s sordid defection drama.

Mercifully, the need to end defections was spotlighted once again. However, this extracted from the Law Minister, Mr. J.N. Kaushal no more than the platitudinous assurance which many Parliament watchers like me have got sick and tired of hearing over the past decade and more. Mr. Kaushal told the Lok Sabha: “The proposal for electoral reforms is under examination. … the reforms cannot be made unless there is a consensus among us all…. We do not want to tinker with the present laws”. In the Rajya Sabha, he said a day later: “Any attempt to rush through the reforms could do more damage than good.” Little thought, however, came to be given to the strong desire of Karnataka and other non-Congress-I States to ban defections through their own legislation without further delay. (Jammu and Kashmir, which has a separate Constitution,enacted legislation under thelate Sheikh Abdullah to ban defections. This Act is now before the Supreme Court). The Rajya Sabha as the Council of States surely needs to ask: Must the States be forced to allow political harlotry to flourish unchecked so long as the Centre does not wish to end the evil?

The Centre’sproposal to replace sales tax on vanaspati etc by additional excise duty, as suggested by the Tripathi Committee, came up in the Lok Sabha during question time on Friday. The Finance Minister,Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, declined to assure the House that the proposal would be implemented only after obtaining the unanimous consent of all the State Chief Ministers. Answering supplementaries he said: “My effort is to narrow down the differences and widen the area of agreement.” A laudable effort undoubtedly. But before Mr. Mukherjee decides on the next step he should not overlook his own responsibility to the Rajya Sabha as leader of the House. The Rajya Sabha and its members are entitled to be consulted on the subject on the basis of the Tripathi Committee’s full report and not merely on the Government’s version of it. Contrary to an impression given by the Centre,the three-manTripathi Committee,headed by Mr.K.P. Tripathi, presently Congress-I Working President, was not unanimous. The only expert member, Dr.P.H. Prasad, opposed the proposal. The third member was an official of the Finance Ministry.

It is no body’s case that the Government should implement the proposal only if the Rajya Sabha approves it unanimously. But the issue could surely be treated on par with a constitutional amendment requiring a minimum two-thirds majority. Such a discussion would be helpful all round — both in ensuring a meaningful consideration and in educating public opinion since the proposal is intended to make life a little easier for the common man. It would also help the better informed members to expose the Centre’s earlier breach of faith on the same subject: replacement of sales tax by additional excise duty. Many years ago, the States agreed to surrender the sales tax on textiles, sugar and tobacco to the Centre on the understanding that it would levy additional excise duty and share the gains with the States. But the Centre subsequently increased only the basic excise duties and appropriated the entire money giving nothing to the States! Much of this was disclosed to the Lok Sabha by Mr. R. Venkataraman on March 1, 1978, who said: “I was a Minister in a State for ten years… and I wanted to cry out. Now I have a chance…”

One question remains. Who should raise the Centre-State issues in the Rajya Sabha? Clearly, the Government should itself come forward and seek a discussion in some cases as, for instance, in regard to sales tax. In some others, the Opposition parties should do so on their own. Not only the Chairman and the Deputy Chairman but also the Government should extend to the Opposition on such occasions their enlightened cooperation and support. One other thought also comes to mind. We must seriously think in terms of amending the Constitution and entitling the State Chief Ministers to address the Houses on crucial matters. I for one would have liked to see Mr. Hegde address the House on the disgusting happenings in Karnataka and the basic issues it has raised. It is a pity that the Karnataka Government’s seminar on Centre-State relations altogether missed taking a look at the Rajya Sabha and its vital role in our federal polity. All in all, we can help ensure smoother and happier Centre-State relations if the Rajya Sabha plays its designated role — and plays it well.  — INFA