The fact that the Rajya Sabha is holding its 250th session from 18th November this year is indeed a landmark event because it shows the remarkable functioning and inner dynamism of our parliamentary democracy for eight decades. Despite all the ups and downs of our party system, the foundations of our Constitution and our Parliament remain firm and unchallenged. The Rajya Sabha particularly, representing as it does members from all our States and Union Territories, has played a special role in this remarkable history. Virtually co-equal with the Lok Sabha in all its powers and privileges, except in the case of no-confidence motions and financial bills, the Rajya Sabha has seen a large number of outstanding parliamentarians brought in from many different spheres of public life.
My own association with the Rajya Sabha goes all the way back to 1967, over half a century ago, when I joined Shrimati Indira Gandhi’s cabinet with the portfolio of Tourism and Civil Aviation. For ten years as a Minister I was obliged to answer questions once a week in the Rajya Sabha. I recall literary personalities such as Shri Ramdhari Singh Dinkar and eminent lawyers such as Shri Ram Jethmalani were nominated members.
The most formidable person at that time was the Communist Party’s Shri Bhupesh Gupta. He had a forbidding exterior and always kept the government on its toes. However, when I got to know him better, I found that he was very soft at heart. Indeed he took a liking to me and helped me out on several occasions. I recall that once I took the liberty of going up to him and saying, “Bhupesh Da I want to give you a challenge.” He said, “go ahead”. I said, “In the Calcutta maidan, on one side I will put up large pictures of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, and on the other side you put up large pictures of Karl Marx, Lenin and Stalin, then let us see which side attracts more people”. He looked at me with a smile and said, “Do you think I am a fool!”
Then there were the formidable young Turks comprising Chandershekhar, Mohan Dharia and Krishna Kant. For some reason, probably because of their socialist background (what is this Maharaja doing here!) they made it a point to attack me on every possible occasion. Having earlier spent 18 years as Head of State in Jammu and Kashmir it was a learning experience to be subjected to aggressive cross-questioning. However, I held my own despite a few nervous moments.
Several decades later I became a Member of the Rajya Sabha myself four times, in 1966 from Jammu and Kashmir and then from 2000 to 2018 from Delhi. The atmosphere in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are quite different. The former, being a much larger chamber does not have the intimacy of the smaller Rajya Sabha. During those 18 years we had a whole succession of Vice-Presidents as Chairman as well as Deputy Chairman, each of whom had their own style of managing the House. There were some scintillating debates, but unfortunately these were few and far between.
While the 250th session of Rajya Sabha is a cause for celebration, it is also an occasion for introspection. Of late, the frequent disturbances in the House with large numbers of members trooping into the well and physically disrupting the parliamentary process is most deplorable. It not only hits at the heart of the parliamentary system, which assumes peaceful and orderly debate, it brings Parliament itself into disrepute because proceedings are telecast live and watched throughout the country, including by impressionable younger generations. I sincerely hope that all political parties will desist from such activities so that the nation can gain maximum benefit from the important proceedings of the House, including the vital question hour.
I would like to express my views on another aspect affecting the Rajya Sabha. There have been some reports in the press suggesting that we should abandon the existing Parliament House and move into a new building. In my view that would be a travesty. Our Parliament House is a building unique in the world. Its glorious pillars and its round structure can never be replicated. If the Lok Sabha is getting too crowded, it can be shifted back into the Central Hall which is where the Constituent Assembly originally met for several years and crafted our marvellous constitution. The Rajya Sabha could then move into the Lok Sabha chamber, and its present chamber could become a Member’s lounge and meeting place like the central hall is today. With these adjustments, and by moving peripheral offices and chambers out into a new building, we would be able to maintain the present Parliament House which is redolent with history and the memory of our great leaders who have spoken over the decades there during the Constituent Assembly and subsequent parliamentary debates in both Houses.
(Karan Singh is a senior Congress leader and the son of former Jammu & Kashmir ruler Maharaja Hari Singh. He has been a member of both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha)