OBSTRUCTIONISM IS NOT HELPING
Necessity fosters change. Has the time come to consider tweaking the functions and powers of the Rajya Sabha in view of the virtual veto it has exercised in recent months over the popular will as manifested through the directly elected Lok Sabha? Several people feeling increasingly exasperated by the dog-in-the-manger attitude of the Congress have proposed a relook at the powers of the Rajya Sabha. Eighteen months of the five-year term of the Narendra Modi government have gone by without it being able to push through its major legislative agenda, including the all-important GST Bill, thanks to the road blocks erected by the Congress in the RS.
That there should be consternation in the ruling party at the stop, do-not-pass stance of the Congress-dominated Rajya Sabha is understandable. But public-spirited citizens too are getting fed up with obstructionism practised in the Rajya Sabha and want it to be “reformed” so that it does not act as a brake on the functioning of the elected government. A couple of days ago, a former judge of the Supreme Court, K.T. Thomas, openly spoke about the need to curb the powers of the Rajya Sabha. The retired judge cannot be motivated by anything other than the larger national interest. If he has come to the conclusion that the way the House of the States (ha, ha) hampers legislative progress then really there has to be something wrong the way its members have conducted themselves since the advent of the Modi government last May.
The point is simple. Since our Parliament too is modelled on the UK’s “mother of Parliaments”, it will be instructive to recall how they had curbed the role and functions of the House of Lords in order to grant primacy in legislative matters to the duly elected House of Commons. Very early in the 20th century the House of Lords was stripped of its veto power on how the government spent its money. And its powers to sit over Bills passed by the Commons too were largely restricted. Since then, even the constitution of the House of Lords has undergone a drastic change, with the hereditary peerages now reduced to a small minority.
Here in India, we too have undertaken a vital change. But not to strengthen the federal character of what was called by the founding fathers the House of States, but to fully erode it. The original stipulation that members of the Rajya Sabha be “ordinarily residents of the State” from which they are to be elected was virtually made irrelevant. Thus, Manmohan Singh, ordinarily a resident of Chandigarh, claimed to be a resident of Assam to get elected from there to the RS. And Pawan Verma, a pucca UP-wallah, was sent to the Rajya Sabha by Nitish Kumar from Bihar. In other words, the RS has been reduced to a parking place for unelected and unelectable underlings of the party bosses.
But that is not half as bad as is its role in recent months as a major roadblock in the functioning of the elected government. In frustrating the will of the people, as expressed through the Lok Sabha, it violates the democratic spirit. It is now common for the RS to be out of sync with the popular mandate. For the way the Rajya Sabha is constituted at present, it reflects the public mood a few years ago. Since then the dominant Congress has forfeited the trust of the people. But instead of respecting the new mandate, if its members engage in wilfully thwarting the legislative agenda of the party in power, sooner or later the demand for ridding the RS of its veto powers is bound to become irresistible. It is notable that unlike the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the RS Chairman lacks the power to discipline unruly members, the matter being left for the majority to decide.
Senior minister Arun Jaitley too has been heard pitching in for a re-look at the role of the RS. However, he seems content that sometime next year the complexion of the RS will change for the better after the biennial election. But still the NDA will have to wait until 2018 for it to be able to command a full majority in the RS. By then barely a year will remain of Modi’s five-year term. Given that in the fifth year all governments shun hard decisions as they slip into the election mode, it is unlikely that the time lost in pushing through vital legislative measures due to the obstructionism of the RS could be made up in a few short months before the next election begins to loom large on the horizon.
Maybe an all-party meeting to consider how not to allow the RS to become a thorn in the side of the Lok Sabha can be convened as a first step to awaken public opinion before a committee of constitutional experts is formed to recommend ways to reform the House of the States. This much should be clear. The founding fathers did not envisage the RS to be at loggerheads with the popularly elected Lok Sabha.
INSURANCE AGAINST FAILURE
Urban-centric commentators invariably fail to gauge the mood of the people in the rural hinterland. Is it any surprise then that nobody attaches any importance to the influence of the insurance schemes launched by the Modi government on the poor voters in Bihar? Independent observers recently back from Bihar suggest that these schemes have helped firm up Modi’s pro-poor image. For, where else can you be guaranteed a life insurance cover of Rs 2 lakh against a mere Rs 12 annual premium? Even the unemployed youths in rural Bihar have taken care to buy this protection for themselves and their elders. Again, the life insurance and pension schemes linked to the Aadhaar card-based bank accounts have also earned a lot of goodwill for Modi among the poor. As in the Lok Sabha poll, Modi, rather than the BJP, is a huge draw for the poor voters in one of more backwards states in the country.
Congress’ own gadfly, Jairam Ramesh has made good use of his time out of power, churning out two quick books in a matter of months. His latest, To The Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story, offers an insider’s account of the few months when the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh team reversed the direction of the country’s economic policy. A good storyteller, Ramesh has thrown in interesting tit-bits to make it a racy read, especially for those interested in the recent history of the country. But he has undeservedly apportioned credit to Singh, while it belonged almost entirely to Rao and the IMF-World Bank combine. For true to character, Singh was a glorified factotum, fulfilling the wishes of his masters of the time.
Indeed, in his book-related interviews, Ramesh has most generously credited the former Prime Minister for being an “economic reformer by conviction”. The claim is certainly not borne out by facts. For, the one-time economics professor has hardly, if ever, done, first, as a long-time economic bureaucrat, or, later, as a minister, what has not been told to him by his political masters. A careerist all through his life, Singh has displayed no independence of thought or action, whether it was as a bureaucrat or as a minister or Prime Minister. Ramesh has been needlessly kind to his former boss.