In Tuesday’s election for three Rajya Sabha members from Gujarat, India has seen one of its most bizarre political contests of recent times. On July 28, three Congress MLAs defected and announced that they would join the Bharatiya Janata Party. One of them was the Congress chief whip, Balwantsingh Rajput, who immediately received a Rajya Sabha ticket from the BJP. Panicking, the Congress flew the rest of its Gujarat MLAs to the sanctuary of a resort in Karnataka, which has a Congress government. Hot in pursuit, the BJP-controlled Union government launched an income tax raid on the Karnataka minister responsible for sheltering the Gujarat MLAs. Meanwhile, the Election Commission announced that the “None of the Above” would be applicable for the election, leading to complaints from the Congress that this was move to confuse MLAs.
This bitter political fight, it seems, was mostly personal. The fracas was a proxy for a mano-a-mano battle between Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, who is contesting for a Rajya Sabha seat from Gujarat, and BJP chief Amit Shah. Shah was keen on scuttling Patel’s election.
The episode provided a stark reminder of the vast divergence between the role that was envisaged for the Rajya Sabha – as a chamber of the states of the Union – versus what it has become: a playground for party high commands to do as they please. The rivalry between Amit Shah and Ahmed Patel played out even as the state of Gujarat suffered from devastating floods. Far from the floods being an election issue, the voting overshadowed and hampered flood relief.
Ups and downs
The fact that the BJP has put everything and the kitchen sink into this Rajya Sabha election is ironic, given its complaints against the House in the recent past. In 2015, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley remarked that the wisdom of the “directly elected” Lok Sabha should not be questioned by the “indirectly elected” Rajya Sabha.
Since then, though, it seems clear that even the BJP has come around to realising that the Rajya Sabha matters. In fact, its lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha has stymied its otherwise juggernaut-like move towards capturing power across India.
Like quite a bit of the administrative structure of modern India, the Rajya Sabha owes its origins to the Government of India Act, 1935, a constitution for India drawn up by the British Raj. Under it, for the first time, India was envisaged legally as a federation with fairly strong provincial governments and a central government that drew power – at least partly – from India’s constituent provinces and princely states. The name Rajya Sabha itself is a direct translation of the “Council of State” legislative house that the Act envisaged.
Opposing a motion to abolish the Rajya Sabha in the Constituent Assembly, Naziruddin Ahmed from West Bengal argued, “We have to consider the entry of the States into the federation and second chamber would be an absolute necessity without which it would be difficult to fit in the representatives of the States in the scheme of things.”
This emphasis on representing the states in New Delhi means that only domiciles of a state could be elected to the Rajya Sabha. However, this rule was slowly whittled away by party bigwigs looking for a quick entry into the corridors of power in Delhi. Finance minister in the PV Narasimha Rao government, from 1991-1996 Punjab/Delhi resident Manmohan Singh was a Rajya Sabha MP from Assam. At the same time, BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu, a politician from Andhra Pradesh, was a Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka. In 2003, the domicile requirement was totally done away through an amendment to the Representation of the People Act.
This opened the floodgates for big money and political carpetbaggers to rush into the Rajya Sabha. Take the case of Jharkhand. The people who have represented it in the Council of States include Parimal Nathwani, a businessman from Gujarat; KD Singh, an industrialist from Chandigarh; and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a BJP leader from Allahabad. It doesn’t take much to infer that neither Nathwani, Singh nor Naqvi used their seats to do their job – to represent the state of Jharkhand. Many Rajya Sabha MPs are, in fact, on a merry-go-round, hoping from one state to the other as vacancies arise.
As the voice of the states in New Delhi is made weaker, however, the political aspirations of the states become ever stronger, leading to federalism expressing itself via identity. In Karnataka, for example, there is now a strong movement to expel Hindi from public places. The ban on the bull-wrestling pastime of jallikattu saw a resurgence of Tamil nationalism in January. In West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress is busy composing a state anthem as a weapon in its fight against the BJP.
In such a situation, strengthening the Rajya Sabha is the need of the hour. Here are three viable changes that must be considered in order to strengthened Indian federalism and give all states a sufficient political stake in the formal power structures of the Union:
1 Bring back the domicile requirement
States must be represented by people from the state if the Rajya Sabha is to function as a voice of federalism. Right now, the removal of the domicile requirement has simply turned it into a plaything of party high commands who manipulate results to suit their leaders or funders.
2 Each state must have an equal numbers of Rajya Sabha MPs
The explosion of populations in the Hindi states have created a situation that could prove destablising for the Indian Union. India has simply delayed the problem by freezing the number of state seats in Parliament at the 1971 population. This situation cannot go on forever. A simple solution is to take lessons from how other federations have managed population skews between their federating units. The United States Senate, for example, has two members from each state, no matter how big or small. This device put at ease small states and allowed the creation of a federation that has lasted for more than two centuries. This is exactly what India needs to do to convince the rest of the country that the populous north will not end up dominating the Union.
3 Give it equality with the Lok Sabha
The Rajya Sabha has fewer legislative powers than the Lok Sabha. It cannot, for example, stymie a money bill and can be overruled by the device of a joint sitting. This difference in powers is ostensibly similar to the United Kingdom – except that the UK’s Upper House is an appointed body. The Rajya Sabha, however, is elected by the state legislatures. This, it might be noted, is the same manner in which the Indian Constituent Assembly – the body that drafted the Indian Constitution – was elected. A better analogy is the United States, where the equivalent of the Indian Council of States, the Senate, is also elected (till 1913, like Rajya Sabha MPs, senators in the US were elected by state legislatures but are now elected directly). The United States Senate has equal powers as the lower house (the House of Representatives). Moreover, politically, being a senator carries far more prestige than being a representative, given that the former represent an entire state. Right now, even the existing legislative powers of the Rajya Sabha are under attack, given that the Modi government has taken to incorrectly classifying legislative as money bills in order to simply bypass the Rajya Sabha. Giving the Rajya Sabha parity with the Lok Sabha will ensure that the states have their say in the running of the Parliament, allowing a crucial check and balance on the vast powers of the Union government.