Landmark moment for House of Elders, writes Pranab Mukherjee
Bulwark of Democracy: Since its inception in 1952, the Rajya Sabha not only guided the law-making process but also prevented hasty legislation. It continues to serve as a dignified House, working on the federal principles of Indian polity.Updated: Nov 18, 2019 04:37 IST
It is indeed a matter of great encouragement for India’s parliamentary democracy that the Rajya Sabha is holding its 250th Session beginning November 18th. Starting from May 1952, Rajya Sabha — the permanent chamber of the Indian Parliament — has never, at any point in time, had less than two-thirds of its members serving and taking upon their responsibilities when called upon.
To begin with, a lot of debate took place in the Constituent Assembly itself, on the very desirability of a Second Chamber of unelected members. There was a section that considered it to be a “clog in the wheels of legislation and administration” and a “body of indirectly elected members who may try to throttle the desire of the elected members”. However, as the Constituent Assembly passed it, Sir Gopalaswamy Ayyangar summed the basic purpose of Rajya Sabha in the following words:
“I do hope that Second Chamber will strike a fine balance. It will neither be a clog in the legislation or administration. It would serve as a corrective chamber. If something is done in a rush, in a hurry, without giving due thought, without due diligence, then Rajya Sabha has the opportunity to re-examine it and they may suggest to the Lok Sabha, well gentleman in your over enthusiasm or anxiety to do certain things in a hurry you have made certain mistakes. Please rectify it.”
It was in July 1969 that I was elected to Rajya Sabha and continued till July 1987 in the first stint, and from August 1993 to May 2004 in the second. This was when I got elected to the Lok Sabha, continuing there till my election as the President of the Republic in 2012. Since my formal entry into the hallows of Parliament began here, the Rajya Sabha has always held a special significance in my life.
In my long innings as a Rajya Sabha member, I have had the honour of learning from experienced leaders of the freedom movement, who were not only established statesmen, but also learned speakers: MC Chagla, Ajit Prasad Jain, Jairamdas Daulatram, Bhupesh Gupta, Joachim Alva, Mahavir Tyagi, Raj Narain, Bhai Mahavir, Loknath Misra, Chitta Basu, and many more.
As per my assessment, the Rajya Sabha is a place meant to have enlightened discussions and debates. As the members are chosen by the respective parties, it is expected that more politically astute persons will come to the Rajya Sabha. The 12 members nominated by the President of India are a further representative of this expectation. It is indeed supposed to enrich the deliberative character of Parliament.
Over the years, these eminent personalities have included world-renowned musician Pandit Ravi Shankar and singer Lata Mangeshkar, and people from the cinema such as Prithviraj Kapoor, Nargis and Dilip Kumar. Brilliant playwrights, poets and authors have also studded the Rajya Sabha benches, such as Tarasankar Bandopadhyay, Pramathanath Bishi, Shrikant Verma, and Lokesh Chandra who specialised in Buddhist Scholarship. It was the presence of scientists like Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, which added to the overall intellect of Rajya Sabha discussions.
I recall that, on June 15, 1971, I had the privilege to initiate a discussion on the floor of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament, when I suggested that India should accord diplomatic recognition to the Government of Bangladesh in exile at Mujibnagar. My words are on the record in proceedings of the Rajya Sabha. When a member sought my suggestion on how to tackle the problem, I responded by saying: “I am talking of a political solution which means categorically recognising the sovereign democratic Government of Bangladesh. Political solution means giving material help to the democratic, sovereign Government of Bangladesh...” I reminded the House of the many instances in world history when intervention on similar grounds had taken place in the past.
This discussion was not about only the people of East Bengal who sought refuge in India, but also about what India as a country stands for. This was truly an instance that highlighted the importance of Rajya Sabha in defining the characteristics of India as a nation.
There have been times when the Upper House has been accused of being unelected and therefore unaccountable. At times it appeared that the Rajya Sabha was acting as a status quoist House, this was illustrated amply when it held back the 64th and 65th Amendment Bills for empowering local bodies, in the garb of protecting federalism. But I beg to differ, because as a mature and sobering house, Rajya Sabha has more than often acted as a bulwark against the majoritarian absolutism of the Lower House.
It is here that I am reminded of the legislation reserving one-third of the seats for women across the country. The Rajya Sabha played a determining role in the passing of this legislation. After more than two decades of effort, it was in the year 2010 that the Upper House took the historic decision of passing the bill to reserve two-thirds of legislative seats for women — a landmark step towards women empowerment. The bill was passed by 186 votes to one. It was a momentous occasion.
The Rajya Sabha has proved its worth of being the more mature “House of Elders” on many other occasions. The Dowry Prohibition Bill was another legislation in which the Rajya Sabha’s insistence on its amendments led to the convening of a joint sitting of the two Houses. The Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Bill, 1976; the Prevention of Corruption Bill, 1988; and the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 1991 are only to name a few.
Ever since its inception in 1952, the Rajya Sabha not only guided the law-making process but has also prevented hasty legislation and has continued to serve as a dignified house, working on the federal principles of Indian polity. To this end, it has reinforced the idea of “unity and integrity” in the hearts of the Indian population. Even as we celebrate this momentous occasion, it will be desirable on part of the members of the Rajya Sabha to remember that they have to maintain the fine balance between becoming obstructionist or redundant. The Rajya Sabha cannot mischievously veto everything and anything that the Lok Sabha passes and become obstructionist, and at the same time, it should not rubber stamp anything and everything passed by the Lok Sabha, lest it become redundant.
(The writer is the former President of India. He has been a member of both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha)