Sixty-nine years after the Upper House had its first sitting, the method of parliamentary processes has changed.
Indore: On May 13, 1952, when Rajya Sabha held its first sitting, the first Vice-President of India and the first Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan defined the function of the house and said, “We should try to do everything in our power to justify to the public of this country that a second chamber is essential to prevent hasty legislation.”
Fast forward to September 22, 2020, almost 69 years later, the Rajya Sabha passed seven bills in a span of three and a half hours. These bills included the three contentious farm laws, which farmers across the country have been protesting against.
Dr. Radhakrishnan had highlighted that the parliament is not just a legislative body but also a deliberative one, and Rajya Sabha, the upper house, was meant to fulfill this nature of the parliament.
M. Venkaiah Naidu, Chairman of Rajya Sabha, recently said that the Rajya Sabha was proving to be “more and more a ‘deliberative’ body with increasingly more time being spent on this function”. He revealed that timeshare of deliberations under instruments like Short Duration Discussions, Zero Hour, Special Mentions, Discussion on Budgets and working of ministries, Motion of Thanks to President, etc., was 33.54 percent during 1978-2004. It rose to 41.42 percent during 2005-2014 and to a high of 46.59 percent during 2015-19.
However, an analysis by PRS legislative research reveals that the 245-member Rajya Sabha, on average, spent only 25 percent of its time debating Bills in the past 15 years. In the last Budget Session, it spent 45 percent of its time on non-legislative debates and 19 percent of the time discussing Bills. On average, in the past 20 years, only 18 percent of the questions in Rajya Sabha have been answered orally during a session.
M. V. Rajeev Gowda, a former member of parliament in the Rajya Sabha and a national spokesperson for the Indian National Congress, believes that the significance of the Rajya Sabha has increased in the past few years.
“In the Lok Sabha, for the last seven years, the ruling party has had a spectacular majority. Whatever anyone in the opposition wants to say or do, does not have much impact. Eventually, there is less place for debate and engagement,” he explained.
“Rajya Sabha, therefore, has had the blocking capacity over the last few years. It has the ability to stop legislation from going forward, and there have been more efforts to consult, discuss, and work out changes,” he said.
Ajeet Singh, a senior journalist and editor of a private news organisation, believes that even though the performance of the parliament is improving in terms of the number of sittings, and the number of bills passed, the quality of discussions and debates can be questioned. “Many bills passed in recent times, including the farm bills, the labour laws, and the new rules governing digital media have been passed without much discussion,” he said. “The debate that started after passing these bills should have taken place during the process,” he added, “only then we can ensure that issues don’t take a political turn.”
Mr. Gowda said that he cannot comment on whether things have worsened or improved in terms of the law-making process but believes that it is a set of political decisions that, sometimes, lead to these anti-democratic outcomes.
He explained that the case of Farm Bills is somewhat similar to the Andhra Pradesh Bifurcation Bill, which was pushed through the parliament during the tenure of the previous UPA government. “The government did not expect to pass the Farm Bills easily, so they steamrolled them through the Rajya Sabha. The process was ugly, and it puts democracy itself in disrepute,” he said.
But, he also said that at other times, the Rajya Sabha ends up having discussions and debates that last a few hours, and bills get passed to the parliamentary committees for scrutiny. “That is how Parliament should actually work – by having constructive debates and discussions, and by incorporating suggestions,” he added.
P. D. T. Achary, former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha, believes, “Parliament can function smoothly only if the crudity of bitter adversarial politics is discarded and the stakeholders elevate themselves to a higher level.”
“Everyone should remember the famous dictum: ‘In a parliamentary system, the opposition should have its say and the government will have its way.’ If this practised in real life, our parliaments will get back to being a forum of calm and mature debates,” he said.