Today, as we celebrate the 250th Session of the Rajya Sabha, it is appropriate for us to reflect on whether we have lived up to the vision of the framers of our Constitution. The task before us was spelled out by our first Chairman, Dr Radhakrishnan, during the very first session of this august House. He had emphasised that Parliament is not only a legislative, but a deliberative body. So far as its deliberative functions are concerned, it would be open to us to make very valuable contribution. We should try to do everything, in our power, to justify to the public of this country that a Second Chamber is essential to prevent hasty legislation.
During the drafting of the Constitution, Gopalaswamy Ayangar advanced three reasons why India needed a Second Chamber. He expected that the Rajya Sabha would: (a) hold dignified debates; (b) delay legislation which might be the outcome of passions of the moment; and (c) provide opportunity to the seasoned people who might not be in the thickest of political fray but who might be willing to participate in the debates with the amount of learning and importance which we do not associate with the House of the People.
For the manner in which the role of the Rajya Sabha has evolved, we must thank our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He asserted that neither House had any particular superiority over the other. He regarded the Rajya Sabha as an equal partner with Lok Sabha in the affairs of the State. But for his efforts, the Rajya Sabha would have been reduced to a mere second or revising Chamber and relegated to a secondary position in our parliamentary system.
As explained by Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly, the Rajya Sabha represents a crucial component of the constitutional system of checks and balances. We normally think of checks and balances as operating in different branches of the government. However, the Rajya Sabha has a central role to provide checks and balances to a majority government in the Lok Sabha, along with its role to represent the interests of the states in our federal Union. When there is a criticism of Rajya Sabha, it is fundamentally a misunderstanding of its historic roles bestowed on this august chamber. It is our duty to ensure that no law is passed in haste and in an atmosphere of heightened emotion.
That said, are there ways in which we can improve our functioning so that we come closer to the idealistic vision of our nation’s founders? When it comes to deliberation, we start with an advantage. The Rajya Sabha gets more time to deliberate in comparison to the Lok Sabha since we are only half the size, and, therefore, members get more time to share their insights and criticism. But we can help our members perform better through some procedural improvements. The House must get access to Bills much earlier than is the case now. Members should get additional resources such as adequate research staff to allow them to study issues in more depth and nominated members and those with special expertise in a particular topic should be allotted more time for their speeches. I suggest that every year the Rajya Sabha should find time to debate on the state of Centre-State relation as this is the Council of States. Also, every year, there should be a debate in this Council on the state of nation’s health and the state of nation’s education.
One recent innovation that has led to smoother functioning was introduced by our previous chairman, Hamid Ansari. He saw that this House was losing valuable time when members wanted to adjourn the Question Hour to raise issues of urgent national importance. He, therefore, switched the timings of the Zero Hour and the Question Hour. Now, when members desire to raise urgent issue, that issue is often accommodated as part of the Zero Hour and the Question Hour functions much more smoothly.
But, for our Chamber to fully fulfil its deliberative function, it is important that we scrutinise Bills more thoroughly in Committees, where not only the members can apply their minds but even experts’ and stakeholders’ opinion can be solicited. In the 16th Lok Sabha, only 25 per cent of the Bills introduced were referred to Committees, much lower than the 71 per cent, and 60 per cent in the 15th and the 14th Lok Sabhas respectively. I would assert that regardless of what the other House does, it is crucial for our House to form select committees to ensure that the Bills receive the detailed scrutiny that they do deserve. What I have seen is that the Rajya Sabha select committees have done a commendable job of improving legislation, and I would urge that we ensure that we follow this practice for all Bills that come before this august House.
A crucial differentiating factor between the two Houses is that Article 110 of the Constitution allows the Lok Sabha precedence in matters of Money Bills. In the recent past, we have seen instances of misuse of the Money Bill provision by the Executive leading to bypassing the Rajya Sabha on crucial legislations of national importance without any deliberation. Those in treasury benches must ensure that such instances are avoided.
The Rajya Sabha is a permanent House. We have been designed in a manner to ensure continuity as only one-third of our Members retire every two year. We are thus able to build on our collective wisdom without having to start afresh after every General Election. This gives us the mandate to strengthen ourselves continuously to enhance the quality of our input on legislation and on resolving the challenges facing our country. I would further submit, Sir, that on some matters this House should be given greater respect by the Executive than is the case now. For example, important issues like redrawing the boundaries of a State, or, for that matter, abolishing certain States, converting them into Union Territories is such a far-reaching proposal, far reaching legislation. This House, being the Council of States, should be given more powers to deal with issues like that. The government should consult with the Council of States much more effectively before such drastic measures can be considered by the House as a whole.
Edited excerpts from the speech of former Prime Minister and Rajya Sabha member, Manmohan Singh at the 250th session of the Rajya Sabha, 18 November in New Delhi