Lords, and the People.
A day after the budget session of Parliament ended, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley triggered a debate by questioning the powers of the Rajya Sabha to veto the bills passed by the Lok Sabha. Jaitley, who is also the Leader of the House in Rajya Sabha, said it was a serious issue in a parliamentary democracy because the wisdom of a directly elected House was being repeatedly questioned by the indirectly elected House.
During the winter and budget sessions, opposition parties had joined hands to take the government head on in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA has only 60 members (45 BJP members plus allies) in the 243-member House. On the other hand, the ruling party enjoys an overwhelming majority in the 543-member Lower House with 282 members of its own and 51 from alliance partners.
Jaitley was primarily reacting to the opposition stalling the government's attempt to clear certain amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (FCRA), Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956 (SCRA), Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999 (FEMA) and Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA), along with the finance bill and the black money bill, by tagging them as money bills. Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari was quick to informally warn the opposition to stay vigilant and not entertain such "liberal interpretations" of the money bill.
According to law, the Rajya Sabha does not have the power to block a money bill once it is cleared by the Lok Sabha.
The Indian parliamentary system is indeed going through an interesting phase. For the first time since 1984, it has witnessed a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha. But as the numbers in the Rajya Sabha do not add up in favour of the BJP, life is increasingly becoming difficult for the ruling dispensation. For example, on the last day of the session, eight bills, including bills on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and land acquisition, were sent to select committees of the Upper House after they failed the Rajya Sabha test.
If things go well in the upcoming assembly polls and the NDA can win a few seats in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, it may reach a tally of 100 members by 2019. The ruling dispensation can then be at an advantage in a crisis situation by calling a joint session of Parliament, as they will have 394 members against a combined strength of 786 members. However, constitutional amendments, such as the GST Bill, cannot be passed through a joint session and the BJP has to bank on its floor managers to stitch up the numbers in its favour.
The Narendra Modi-led government has promised several economic reforms, but to get the bills passed they will have to do better in the Rajya Sabha. This is where the question raised by Jaitley becomes pertinent; should Rajya Sabha members question the wisdom of those in the Lok Sabha? In the Lower House, none of the opposition parties has a strength of 10 per cent to even be constitutionally considered as an Opposition, yet their representations at the Upper House gives them the power to thwart the government's attempts to bring in certain important reforms. This obviously leads to frustration for the ruling combine. But, should the government look at constitutional remedies to circumvent this hurdle?
In fact, this question is not being raised for the first time. It was raised before the constituent assembly passed the resolution to adopt a bicameral Parliamentary system on July 28, 1947. Arguing for the second chamber, Congress leader Narasimha Ayyangar Gopalaswami Ayyangar - who was later appointed as the leader of the Rajya Sabha and also donned the railways minister's hat in the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet - argued that the Upper House can act as an 'instrument' to delay action on a hastily-conceived decision, through debates and discussions by 'seasoned people with an amount of learning and importance', something that we do not ordinarily associate with a House of the People.
This argument loses its relevance today as those who are blocking reforms are seasoned politicians who want to score brownie points. They say the government is pushing the amendments 'hastily' and are bulldozing the opposition with the numbers they have in the Lok Sabha, and forcing their way through ordinances. One must, however, remember that not all Rajya Sabha members today are seasoned people with an amount of learning, but are representatives of political parties who had failed to win during the 2014 general elections (including Jaitley, HRD minister Smriti Irani, leader of Opposition Gulam Nabi Azad, and JD (U) leader Sharad Yadav) and, hence, defeat Ayyangar's argument.
India had inherited its parliamentary system from the British and it was loosely based on their Parliament Act, 1911. Since then, the British have undergone several phases of reforms. In fact, in the recently concluded general elections in the UK, there was debate on reform measures for their upper chamber, the House of Lords. The points discussed echo Jaitley's views: The House of Lords cannot veto bills that a majority had promised in its manifesto. India adopted the British system when the constitution was formed, now should it consider overhauling the parliamentary system? Certainly, both Jaitley and Modi would have liked it if Ayyangar and his colleagues had taken a decision on certain laws that would not require the Lower House to consult the Upper House.
But given the reality of the day, the NDA government will have to battle it out with the opposition even during the next session of Parliament to ensure the crucial bills have a smooth passage.
Reproduced From Business Today. Copyright 2015. LMIL. All rights reserved.
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