On Monday, the 250th session of the Rajya Sabha (RS) commenced. India’s upper house has been a remarkable institution, which has played an important, and often underrated role, in strengthening India’s parliamentary democracy as well as Indian federalism.
When the Constitution envisaged a bicameral legislature, there was a clear rationale. The Lok Sabha (LS) was the popularly elected house. The numbers in the lower house would dictate the composition of the executive. It would also have extra financial powers that the RS would lack. But despite this seeming asymmetry, the RS had a special role. The idea was that with its distance from the exigencies and immediate demands of mass electoral politics, the House would serve as a chamber of more informed deliberation, where individuals from across political and professional backgrounds would offer their independent and wise inputs into legislation. The idea also was that this would be the voice of the Indian states, where concerns by representatives from distinct regions would add to the depth of unity.
Since its inception, the RS has performed this role to a large extent. It has been a check on excesses by the LS, especially at times when a single party dominates the lower house, while also deferring to its directly-elected nature. It has been the site of progressive legislations, while subjecting policies to rigorous check. At the same time, the House must reflect on certain features of its functioning. It has often seen disruptions, which undermine its dignity, serve as a drain on public resources, and erode democratic discourse. Members should also take the committee system more seriously for it is the space for deeper discussions. The rich legacy of the Rajya Sabha must be upheld.