‘Vox populi, Vox Dei’ (Voice of the people is the voice of God) is an age-old aphorism that exemplifies the cardinal principle of the democratic system of governance. This Latin phrase has been in vogue at least since 798 AD, when it was first used by English scholar Alcuin in his missive to Charlemagne, King of the Franks, albeit in a negative connotation, urging the latter to resist the idea of listening to the voice of the people since “…the riotousness of the situation amounted to madness”. History has since come a full circle. The scope of direct participation of people in formation of the state apparatus and the conduct of its affairs has been increasingly felt and has become more and more pronounced over the years of political churning to the extent that in a true and practising democracy like India, the sovereignty vests with the legislature elected by the common man.
The voice of the people echoes in parliamentary debates through their elected representatives over the business of lawmaking taken up in a dispassionate manner with all the seriousness that the situation demands. Herein lies the catch, with the efficacy of the system being attributed to the alertness and awareness of their rights by the people, overlooking the fact that there are extraneous factors too at play that enhance or vitiate the performance of the legislature. With a worrisome decline in the serious nature of Members of Parliament (MPs) that the people elect, the quality of discussions and debates on the floor of the legislature over matters of the advancement and progress of the State tends to go south. And ruckus and ramblings on the part of the honorable members over matters of petty personal interest as well as the safeguarding of the interests of their party and its leaders replace a healthy exchange of ideas.
This happens at the cost of serious debates and meaningful discussions on the basic and fundamental issues affecting the immediate and long-term interests of the electorate, over a broad spectrum of crucial issues ranging from education to employment, economy to the environment, living standards to law and order, etc. This has become all the more so in the case of Rajya Sabha, the members of which are elected not directly by the people but by the representatives chosen by them for the state legislatures. To that extent, the dismal state of affairs often found prevailing in the Upper House in the recent past may not even be directly attributed to the people who are reduced to a helpless situation where they are mute witnesses to the churlish and portentous behaviour on the part of an increasing number of irrepressible and irascible members resorting to highly objectionable acts of disrupting the proceedings of the House without any provocation.
Clamour in the Well
On occasions of such a sorry spectacle often caused by some statement or the other made by a minister or member of their rival party over a corruption charge or scam or scandal involving their party leaders, they rush to the well of the House. In a despicable fashion and deplorable manner, they then stretch their larynx, snatch the business papers from the hands of the rival party members, not infrequently, even from the table of the honourable Speaker and unceremoniously tear and throw them in the air. In the ensuing din and cacophony, the statement of the minister or the rival party member is drowned. There could hardly be another act which could match in gravity in downright contempt to the gravitas of the Rajya Sabha proceedings! Then they stage a walkout, severely hampering further proceedings, and the rest of the session becomes a complete washout with little legislative work to talk about. The Opposition members typically resort to such pathetic gimmicks as they fear that the charges made would irreparably damage the reputation of their leader or the interests of their party in the eyes of the public who get to watch the live proceedings of the House on television.
The voice of reason gets drowned in the heckling and cackling of such unruly members. The solemnity and splendour of the House are scrunched and unceremoniously thrown to the winds by the jeering and joustings of the charging brigade, not unlike the fate meted out to the papers snatched from rival party members and flung away. What a vulgar display of lung power and tyranny of numbers! The futile attempt of the NDA government to get legislation of crucial bills like GST, Land Acquisition, etc passed in the Rajya Sabha despite their comfortable passage by the Lok Sabha, that triggered the overrunning of the proceedings by members of the principal Opposition party and its allies trying to sidle up to it in a vulgar display of the you-scratch-my-back-and-I-shall-scratch-yours syndrome, is a case in point. All due to the recalcitrant behaviour of the spiteful members of the Opposition bent upon establishing their supremacy of numbers and scoring brownie points to which national interests became evidently subservient!
Time Lost, Money Wasted
There are currently over 45 bills pending in Rajya Sabha compared to a mere 11 in Lok Sabha to be taken up in the forthcoming monsoon session. Wastage of colossal amounts of money spent on the conduct of the House and loss of inestimably precious time were wilfully and wantonly precipitated in the previous sessions by Opposition members who had the benefit of numerical strength over the ruling coalition. To give an idea about the kind of public money that goes into the drain, it costs about Rs 2.5 lakh per minute to conduct a parliament session. This makes the loss incurred for every wasted hour Rs 1.5 crore. Winter Session 2015 of the Rajya Sabha had lost 47 hours, resulting in a whopping loss of Rs 70.5 crore, which the state exchequer can ill-afford.
All the same, notwithstanding the deplorable situation, it would be too superficial an exercise to attempt calculating the loss in monetary terms as compared to the unquantifiable loss of the sanctity and majesty of one of the two organs of the highest law making body of the land. In a dire contrast, the British House of Commons is reputed to have lost not a single day of any of its sessions throughout its long history! Extremely unhappy with the situation, the Chairman of Rajya Sabha observed that the session seemed extremely unproductive in terms of legislative work. He further expressed distress over repeated disruptions and called upon the members of the House to “introspect on this state of affairs” and to abstain from practices and approaches that lower the stature of the Upper House of Parliament.
Crossing the Rubicon
Shortage of a few members on the treasury benches had the disconcerting and desultory effect of holding the government to ransom by the Opposition, which could not rise above petty and pernicious considerations. And surprisingly, this is happening to a government that has been overwhelmingly voted to power with absolute majority. If opposition to crucial bills were to be established in the well of the House on the sheer strength of lung power and the adamant attitude of some stubborn members who do not follow the norms and decorum of the House, what is the need for such an august platform? This is the disturbing thought that would cross the mind of any ardent votary of democracy. Why not settle scores with the help of clashing mobs of political party supporters via confrontations on street corners?
Why spend colossal amounts of money and waste precious time and collective manpower of honorable members of the Upper House only to witness the self-esteem and pride of the nation getting a severe beating time and again, session after session, just because of some unruly members resorting to grandstanding over matters of national interest? How serious is the situation? Have those responsible for this sorry state of affairs crossed the Rubicon? How long before the frustratingly blatant situation is addressed for rectification in terms of hard political measures, if only to put an end to the agony and misery of the futile exercise of self-defeatism? Do we need the Rajya Sabha at all, at least as it exists today? These are some of the questions currently engaging the mind of the common man whose vote is as equal in weightage and as valuable a tool in the hands of his illustrious peer of intellect.
Are Candidates Truly Representative of States?
The germination of the idea of Rajya Sabha was the fallout of a proposal contained in the Government of India Act 1935 to form a Council of States. The Act envisaged deputation of a delegation from every princely state to the Council of States while elected members were to be sent to the Lower House by British India. However, the proposal turned out to be a non-starter. The Rajya Sabha, fashioned after the Council of States that failed to take off, is expected to have for members the representatives of states. However, in actual practice political parties nominate those candidates in whom they have their own interests, and which has nothing to do with the interests of the state from which they are returned.
Generally, it is seen that some of the eminent personalities, including party stalwarts, who do not enjoy grassroot support and popularity among the masses are accommodated in the Rajya Sabha, thanks to the overwhelming numbers of the parties in different state legislatures. Here, suffice it to say that the Rajya Sabha has largely become an exclusive club of unelectable personalities of prominence. The unfortunate outcome of this development is that such members are bound to end up woefully beholden to the political party that nominated them more than the full-time member candidates of the party. That explains the diehard loyalty of Rajya Sabha members to the confrontational posturing adopted by the Opposition party on the flimsiest of grounds.
Centre State Cooperation
When the legislation of crucial bills aimed at promoting the economic development of the country gets stalled in the Rajya Sabha, it makes inclusive growth and speedy progress of the country’s economy a tall order. In such cases, the union government is constrained, at least on some occasions, to take the speedy route of ordinances. When the Parliament is in session, if a law of considerable importance cannot be enacted because of the repugnant behaviour of some renegade members and the government has to adopt it on the strength of an ordinance, it does not reflect well on the Parliament and does not augur well for the healthy growth of democracy. This is where the states should rein in the members of the Rajya Sabha whom it returns and ensure that they fall in line punctiliously to carry out the onerous task of lawmaking. But being nominated by parties for their own considerations and convenience, members are beholden to the parties instead of being concerned about the interests of and matters of concern to the state.
Lack of cooperation on the part of the states with the Centre in the implementation of national projects as well as the obsolete nature of their own archaic laws render alignment and sync with the Union government’s projects and plans for transformation of the nation’s economy on a fast track, a cry in the wilderness. This anomalous situation can only be rectified if the state governments willingly cooperate with Centre for the betterment of condition prevailing at the state and national level. The Rajya Sabha, which should ideally have representatives who are absolutely committed to the development of their states, is the most befitting organ that can ensure harmony and sync with the central government’s ambitious endeavours for economic reforms and transformation. This, in turn, can help improve the quality of governance and benefit all the states across the country as well as every citizen.
Need to Amend Whip System and Anti-Defection Law
Currently, political parties in the Rajya Sabha follow a practice of issuing whips directing their MPs to stick to the party’s stand and to vote either for or against a bill according to the party line on the issue. Under the Tenth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, which is commonly referred to as the anti-defection law, an MP can even lose his seat in Parliament if he votes against the party whip. As such, the MPs have to necessarily follow the whip, or else they risk losing their seat in Parliament. Because of this whip system, the party MPs have no freedom to vote according to his or her individual conscience in matters concerning important bills.
To eliminate the disadvantage mentioned above, the issuance of a whip in the Rajya Sabha should be limited only to those bills that can threaten the survival of the government, such as in the case of no-confidence motions. In other legislative business of Rajya Sabha, every MP should have the freedom to exercise his judgment, articulate his opinion and vote as per his individual conscience taking into consideration the merit of the issue, while remaining absolutely free from the influence of party politics. To ensure this happens, there is an urgent need to appropriately amend the anti-defection law as well as the whip system that currently reduces the MPs to a mere headcount on the floor of the House and also deters them from exercising their judgments on major issues. Furthermore, in the case of important issues, the Rajya Sabha should invariably depend on Secret Voting or Closed Voting so that only the number and not the names of members voting for or against gets recorded. This will ensure that the MPs cast their vote based on the merit of the issue and not under the influence of party politics.
All the above are matters of immediate and tremendous national importance that need to be addressed in real earnest. Neither delay nor reluctance should be brooked in setting things right about the Rajya Sabha, which has become a victim of the tactics of procrastination and subversion by spiteful and vengeful members raring to up their ante at the least of provocations to bamboozle the government’s relentless efforts in the service of the nation. Unless and until the situation is brought under control and the House proceedings are allowed to be carried out peacefully through a healthy exchange of ideas, the situation is likely to deteriorate further to the hopeless point of no return. Anybody in a hurry can cut off the Gordian Knot straight away and demand the dissolution of the institution of Rajya Sabha to make the business of legislation a smooth and speedy affair.
The better thing would be to unravel the knot by going about the task of improving the conditions in the Upper House by introducing the requisite reform measures. A high power committee, with the participation of main political parties and other stakeholders such as the Election Commission, can be constituted for studying the situation and suggesting remedial measures. A nationwide consensus would be necessary too to make the required Constitutional amendments. Although painstaking and arduous, introducing reforms to make the Council of States true to its name would be in the fitness of things. Let us not overlook the wisdom of the founding fathers of our Constitution in whose scheme of things the Upper House was not merely an elitist club of unelectable personalities but an integral part of the system of checks and balances in the crucial business of legislation. Prudence calls for baby steps toward an enhanced and empowered Rajya Sabha instead of throwing the baby away with the bathwater.