Gaining the Upper Hand

Will the Rajya Sabha finally come into its own?

01 July 2014
Modi assured the members of the Rajya Sabha of his belief in cooperative federalism during his 11 June speech.
Modi assured the members of the Rajya Sabha of his belief in cooperative federalism during his 11 June speech.

SPEAKING TO THE RAJYA SABHA on the evening of 11 June, the new prime minister, Narendra Modi, chose his words with some care. His inaugural speech to the upper house of Parliament reiterated some of the themes of the president’s address to both houses the day before—the need for inclusive development, an acknowledgement of regional disparities—as well as a sentiment particularly relevant to the council of states. “I have experienced how the requests of the state have not been approved for personal reasons,” Modi said, referring to his past work as Gujarat’s chief minister. “I believe in cooperative federalism. We need to work with the states.”

The import of his words was not lost on the Rajya Sabha’s current members, most of whom are elected by state legislatures, with each state allotted a number of seats proportionate to its population (a small number of the 250 seats are filled by presidential nomination). Unlike the Lok Sabha, which is reelected every five years, one third of the Rajya Sabha is elected every two years, and members have six-year terms. All major legislation, except for most budgetary and financial matters, must pass the upper house, which is designed to provide representation for the states in creating central legislation. While it has the power to scuttle bills passed by the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha has predominantly been perceived as a rubber-stamping authority, a token nod to federalism—or, at best, a route for technocrats such as Manmohan Singh and Arun Jaitley to wield legislative authority despite lacking the mass support to win elections.

For most of India’s post-Independence history, with the Congress party dominating both the centre and the states, the issue of divergent views between the two houses has largely been moot. But the slow erosion of the party’s control during the coalition era, coupled with its deficiency in cohesive leadership during the last United Progressive Alliance government, has dramatically altered the terrain. The 15th Lok Sabha was characterised by a robust opposition, but also by frequent disruption and the derailment of much legislative work. It is in this context that the BJP has emerged as the single largest party in the lower house, facing a fragmented and leaderless opposition.

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    Hartosh Singh Bal is the executive editor at The Caravan.

    Keywords: Parliament BJP Narendra Modi womens reservation bill Rajya Sabha federalism indian constitution Prevention of Terrorism Act