In the bicameral structure of our Parliament the Rajya Sabha (RS) is nominally the Upper House. Like the British House of Lords or the American Senate, it has the duty to conduct high-level debates on important issues related to statecraft — debates that cannot be held in the rowdy chamber of the Lok Sabha (LS), where shrill party politics often overpowers the principles of civilised discourse. The RS has also the responsibility to afford the states of the Indian union the scope to get represented qua states — a duty that the LS, based on a system of personal representation, cannot fulfil.
Our administrative apparatus allows for a domineering proclivity on the part of the Centre that often erodes the autonomy of the states and tramples upon the ideal of federalism. Conversely, politics in the country today is defined largely by the dialectics of regional parties and their narrow regional interests, often influenced by divisive sectoral dynamics. In the rigmarole generated by these two contrasting tendencies the question of how the State can move towards an authentic federalism — discursive and democratic — keeps getting postponed. The RS, conceived as an instrument for balanced and enlightened politics, could have been an ideal space wherein to seek the answer to this question. That, alas, has not happened. What has happened, instead, could easily be seen as a saga of blatant political opportunism. The RS has always been used by political parties as a tool to secure parliamentary seats for ‘leaders’ unwilling or unable to contest a general election or to reward influential persons for their loyalty.
Although all political parties are guilty of this sin, the Congress is a leader of the pack. It has quite a history of fielding RS candidates from various states, showing rank outsiders as inhabitants of that state. Assam, particularly, has been thus used by the party. Indeed, the Congress sent none other than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the RS from Assam five times since 1991. The most recent instance of the Congress foisting a carpetbagger on Assam has been the nomination of Sanjay Singh as an RS candidate from there. The party is apparently doubtful if Singh would be able to retain his LS seat of Sultanpur in Uttar Pradesh against the BJP’s Varun Gandhi in the general election. Whatever the reasons for the Congress to impose Sanjay Singh on Assam, service or closeness to the state is clearly not one of them. In spite of the protests against his nomination, the Congress ensured that Sanjay Singh won the election.
The practice of using the Upper House as a backdoor to the legislature continues unabated. Another instance being the CPI(M)’s nomination of Ritabrata Banerjee’s as an RS candidate from West Bengal after he failed to win a Lok Sabha election. Banerjee won the election giving the Left its lone seat out of the five RS seats that had to be filled this time. This nefarious habit of abusing the RS as a smoother route to power belittles the institution of Parliament. And it certainly does not add to either the credibility or the dignity of the candidates themselves. If the RS has to be made into a genuinely ‘Upper’ House, political parties have to be weaned away from the practice of its abuse. In the initial stages of kicking off this pernicious habit the parties would do well to seek wisdom and excellence — attributes supposed to epitomise the Rajya Sabha — outside party folds. If we could find ways to ensure such conscious depoliticisation of the House, the RS could yet morph into an authentic Upper House of the legislature and fulfil the sublime functions for which it was conceived. As of now, this is only a wish.
Suparna Banerjee a researcher and writer based in Kolkata
The views expressed by the author are personal