Former President Pranab Mukherjee’s newspaper article published on the day Rajya Sabha held its 250th sitting on 18 November set the tone for the special discussion on the “role of Rajya Sabha in Indian polity and the way forward”. Mukherjee, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1968 and served as a Leader of the House prior to moving to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2012, reminded the members that that they should maintain a balance and not be “obstructionist or redundant”. Rajya Sabha, the second chamber of the Parliament of India, has often seen the ruling party of the time in a minority and thus the popular mandate reflected in the Lok Sabha decisions tend to get negated in the House of Elders, the Rajya Sabha. The former President’s views were quoted by the chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the Vice President of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu in his opening remarks and reiterated by the Deputy Chairman, Harivansh, who made an enlightened intervention to sum up the discussion. Harivansh quoted poet Maithili Sharan Gupt, who had served as a nominated member of the House in the 1950s: “hum kya they, kya ho gaye hain, aur kya hongey abhi; aao vicharen aaj milkar ye samasyaen sabhi (let us introspect on our past, look at our present and discuss the way forward)”. Rajya Sabha had been envisaged by the founding fathers of the Constitution as the forum for “dignified debates” by “seasoned people”. Venkiah Naidu quoted a French scholar, Abbe Sieyes, to underscore the dichotomy between the two Houses of Parliament: “If a second chamber dissents from the first, it’s mischievous; if it agrees, it is superfluous.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi chided those who disrupt the proceedings by rushing into the well of the House. He praised Biju Janata Dal and Nationalist Congress Party members for their principled stand of not entering the well of the House—in doing so, he categorically stated that even members of his Bharatiya Janata Party were not averse to the practice he was criticising. This statesmanlike assertion by the Prime Minister was largely misinterpreted in the media and seen as an olive branch to NCP in the context of the ongoing Maharashtra imbroglio. Modi relied on the statements made in the past by his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and asserted that the Rajya Sabha was the second, not a secondary House of Parliament. He cited the decision of Home Minister Amit Shah to introduce in Rajya Sabha the legislation abrogating Articles 370 and 35A, bringing Jammu & Kashmir into the national mainstream as an example of the importance his government assigned to the Council of States (Rajya Sabha). The House was a forum to provide check and balance and not checkmate, he emphasised.
Rajya Sabha is the permanent House—while Lok Sabha is elected for five years and dissolved once its term expires, Rajya Sabha is perennial: one-third of its members retire every two years and thus the House is never dissolved. There have been occasions when Rajya Sabha has met during a national crisis while Lok Sabha stood dissolved. In 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in the midst of the general elections, Rajya Sabha met to discuss the security situation created by a former Prime Minister’s ghastly killing and to pay tribute. Rajya Sabha is equal to Lok Sabha, the House of the People in all respects, except two: the government has to enjoy the confidence of the Lok Sabha, thus motion of no-confidence is the exclusive realm of that House. And money bills are passed solely by the Lok Sabha. The Budget and the Appropriation Bill are discussed by Rajya Sabha but the prerogative of presentation of Union Budget and its passage and the sanction of expenditure from the Consolidated Fund of India lies with the Lok Sabha. In recent days there has been a controversy regarding what a money bill should be—Rajya Sabha’s Congress member Jairam Ramesh’s petition has been referred to a larger bench of the Supreme Court. During the discussion in the 250th session Ramesh referred to two instances in the past, when during Congress regimes, Rajya Sabha had negated the government—the 24th Amendment abolishing Privy Purses of the Princes and the Panchayati Raj and Nagarpalika amendments (which were subsequently passed): these had not been introduced as money bills hence they faced hindrance. (In 1970, the Privy Purse legislation was negated because it fell short by one vote to get two-thirds majority of the House: a DMK member who was to vote for the amendment had stepped out to go to the washroom when the Division was announced and gates were closed, as per procedure—the lack of his vote necessitated the legislation to be reintroduced a year later and passed as the 26th Amendment.)
Rajya Sabha meets for around 70 days in a year. Many members wanted the number of sittings to be increased to at least 100. Trinamool’s Sukhendu Shekhar Roy, TRS’ K. Keshav Rao, Akali Dal’s Naresh Gujaral supported the demand for more sittings. Roy pointed out that the report of the Punchhi Commission on Centre-State relations, which had been submitted in 2010, has been gathering dust. Regional party representatives felt the time allotted to them was not reflective of the name, “Council of States” and that the two national parties appropriated a lion’s share in the deliberations. The necessity of a Rajya Sabha member being domiciled in the state he or she represents, which was done away with following the Kuldip Nayar case in 2006 was sought to be reintroduced by the regional parties.
The attendance in the House was thin during most part of this anniversary debate, reflective of the low attendance in most sessions. Twelve eminent persons are nominated to the House by the President of India. Only one, Rakesh Sinha, spoke on this occasion. In the past nominated members preferred to retain their unattached status. At present eight of the 12 have joined the ruling party. The precedent which comes to mind is that of eminent historian, Prof Nurul Hassan, who was nominated in 1968. In 1971, when he was inducted as Education Minister, he preferred to resign and seek re-election as a Congress member from Uttar Pradesh.