In decennial Rajya Sabha elections held for 57 seats in 15 states over the past few months, more than 40 candidates won unopposed. The Rajya Sabha also has a new president. However, these two elections show that over the past decades the Rajya Sabha has been reduced to just one more forum for political parties to consolidate their power. The editors of the Indian Republic did not envisage this sorry situation for the Upper House. The question is whether our political parties choose to undermine the Upper House of Parliament. If so, then why?
An upper house of Parliament had to meet three main objectives. Primarily to provide states with representation to ensure that the government‘s popular mandate at the Center does not overwhelm the voices and concerns of any state. The secondary objective of the Rajya Sabha was to function as a house of elders made up of various elites – intellectual, social, business, media and others eminent in their fields. This was done in the hope that their active participation in the highest legislative body would add value to the laws being drafted and popular discourse. Finally, the Rajya Sabha was essential to ensure the continuity of the state. The Rajya Sabha does not dissolve like the Lok Sabha, and this continuity is considered necessary for the survival of the state.
Apart from the logic of continuity mentioned above, the Rajya Sabha seems to have failed on the other two planes as it turned into a stage for the brutal display of money-power link and horse trade, especially in recent decades. Indeed, the current Hindutva government intensified this deterioration. However, the reasons are more institutional and structural than anecdotal, as the fault lies not entirely with one party or politician, but rather with the practicalities of having an upper house with legislative powers.
Consider this: for the Rajya Sabha to function as the house of elders that raises the level of debate and discourse within the House, popular government must have two preconditions. First, he should be comfortable with his tenure in the lower house to make room for non-party elites in the upper house. A missing party required numbers would like to accommodate as many party members or loyalists as possible to ensure that he does not harm the interests of his party or coalition. A second prerequisite is that popular government must have a leadership with a clear vision and respect for democratic values. This attribute would make him want to welcome people from other fields to enrich the work of the House. Unfortunately, even if we assume they all possessed such virtues, the governments of recent decades failed to deliver on the promises of the Constitution framers due to the political instability throughout that period. The need for superior legislative powers outweighed other considerations.
Each party wants to accommodate its members and loyalists in the system as much as possible. If he is not in power, which translates into no access to state resources (including positions of power), they innovate and find other ways to do so. Major parties, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress Party, have expanded their rosters of office bearers to achieve this goal. The BJP has more than 15 organizational departments, with the number of members holding official designation running into the hundreds. The Congress has about 50 secretaryships within its organizational structure under the All India Congress Committees. These symbolic appointments within parties help maintain the relevance of members. A ruling party would also want to replicate this model in state power positions.
Elections to Rajya Sabha have also become a way fill the party coffers, as many parties nominate candidates as part of an apparent quid pro quo, possibly for financial benefits. Most often, parties nominate these candidates from their “safest” seats. It can be said that for most of these candidates, the Rajya Sabha would only appear as an economic investment.
Interestingly, the presence of higher-order thinking individuals with considerable strength in the “indirectly elected chamber” also poses a paradox for popular government. If a party or coalition is uncertain whether he can retain power, why would he bolster the Upper House with intellectual elites who could undermine his “elected” force later? This tension is why Manmohan Singh, Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie, DP Tripathi, Sitaram Yechury and Manoj Jha, as a few examples from recent memory, emerge as figures who uphold the values of the Rajya Sabha but represent exceptions rather than Standard. Political appointments or symbolic appointments such as Raghav Chadha, Imran Pratapgarhi and many others are the standards. In this context, a party is only expected to seek survival first, and concerns such as the level of debate and the quality of speech take a back seat. The Rajya Sabha, unfortunately, fell victim to this process.
The authors are researchers from the Politics Initiative of the Center for Policy Research, Delhi. Opinions are personal.