The sandstone-paved corridor opens to a magnificent, three-tier chamber distinct from the other parts of the 88-year-old Parliament building. The Chamber, Rajya Sabha, has possibly seen more stalwarts from various walks of life — from business and sports to culture — than any other political institution of this country.
The Upper House of Indian Parliament has been playing a pivotal role in India’s much cherished parliamentary democracy, keeping the bicameral structure alive, setting new records and creating history since its inception. And on November 18, the House, which has dark red as its distinct colour, will open its 250th session: a remarkable feat showcasing the vibrancy of India.
While the Lower House, primarily because of its nature of being elected by voters, has seen more full-time political activists over the years, the Rajya Sabha has been more like an eclectic mix of minds from different streams of life as parties could afford to nominate writers, actors, economists or even poets or political leaders not worrying much about their mass appeal. For, members of Rajya Sabha are not elected through direct elections as their Lok Sabha counterparts. State legislators vote to elect them.
This nature of Rajya Sabha has often sparked a debate over the rationale of a second chamber in Parliament. Critics argued that Lok Sabha MPs are directly elected by people and therefore more accountable to the voters. A similar theory echoed even from some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders that the Lower House shows the result of the people’s mandate. Even French constitutional expert, Abbe Sieyes had once quipped, “If a Second Chamber dissents from the first it is mischievous; if it agrees, it is superfluous.”
But from George Washington to many other pundits, there is no dearth of supporters of the bicameral system. It helps in a deeper review of laws, it provides a wider platform for more talent and expertise as it complements the first chamber in securing greater executive accountability. As CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury once put it: “The Rajya Sabha has red carpets while the Lok Sabha has green ones. It means if the other House shows green flag to any faulty legislation, we can show the red signal.” As India’s polity becomes more diverse and complex, the Rajya Sabha’s importance only grows with time.
The task for Rajya Sabha was cut out long ago. On May 13, 1952, first Vice-President of India and Rajya Sabha Chairman Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had said, “There is a general impression that this House cannot make or unmake governments and, therefore, it is a superfluous body. But there are functions, which a revising chamber can fulfil fruitfully. Parliament is not only a legislative but a deliberative body. So far as its deliberative functions are concerned, it will be open to us to make very valuable contributions.”
The first Global Parliamentary Report of the United Nations Development Programme published in 2012 said while global average number of inhabitants per parliamentarian stands at 146,000, India’s average population per MP is 1,500,000. India also has the lowest per capita expense for an MP: $ 0.25. The pressure and responsibilities of an Indian MP is possibly unparalleled.
As the Rajya Sabha hits the record of holding its 250th session, it also leaves behind a glorious legacy. The Upper House had cleared bills to penalise untouchability (1954), prohibit dowry (1959), set up All India Institute of Medical Sciences (1956), and give all Indian children the right to education (2009). It had also passed the Women’s Reservation bill [also called the Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill] (2010) though the Lok Sabha didn’t take it up.
Unlike the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha is not subject to dissolution but one-third of its members retire after every second year. This ensures continuity and also brings about a fusion of new and old in the House which is customarily described as a House of Elders. This type of arrangement is designed to secure the representation of past as well as current opinion and help in maintaining continuity in public policy.
Article 249 allows the Parliament to legislate on matters enumerated in the State List if the Rajya Sabha passes a resolution by two-thirds majority, which it did in 1952 and 1986. And under Article 312, the Parliament is allowed to create an All India Services common to the Union and the States, if the Rajya Sabha passes a requisite resolution. The Upper House passed resolutions in 1961 and 1965, to create Indian Engineering Service, Indian Forest Service, Indian Medical and Health Service, Indian Agricultural Service and the Indian Educational Service.
The Upper House also has some special powers related to proclamation of the President’s Rule. Usually, such proclamations need approval of both the Houses of Parliament. But if the Lok Sabha is dissolved when the proclamation comes to Parliament, then the Rajya Sabha alone can approve the imposition of President’s Rule. In 1977, it was specially convened to extend the President’s Rule in Tamil Nadu and Nagaland and in 1991, to impose President’s Rule in Haryana.
Over the years, the Upper House has seen a memorable journey through lively debates, informed discussions and its ability to handle complex issues in the interest of the nation. Yes, it has also seen frictions and a rise in disruptions—which is certainly a matter of concern for all stakeholders. But even through the ups and downs of Indian politics, the Rajya Sabha has remained a vanguard for political and social values, a melting pot of culture and diversity and over all, a relentless flag-bearer of sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic called India.