a) Last month, Italy’s upper house of Parlia ment, the Senate, voted to drastically reduce its own powers, including its number of members and its power to block constitutional amendments and other key legislation.b)This ought to interest us in India as Rajya Sabha wields too much power to block significant Bills, even its a indirectly elected body
First, let us be clear that democracies are crucially dependent on checks and balances. Thus, there are very good reasons for having a bicameral legislature, with one house representing the popular will of the day , and the other, with a longer perspective, exercising restraint against a potentially hysterical mob mentality .
But governance in India is caught in a logjam of far too many checks and not enough balance. Nowhere else in the world are there as many legislative checks against the popular mandate of the electorate.
Joint sessions of Parliament are no solution as they are impractical to convene frequently and cannot pass constitutional amendments. (Rajya Sabha has no role in Money Bills)
In UK, on whose Westminster model of parliamentary democracy our system is mostly based. Till a century ago, its House of Lords could reject all bills except money bills, just like our Rajya Sabha today. However, in 1911 the Brits amended this, reducing its powers from being able to block legislation to only delay it up to two years. Then in 1949 the House of Lords’ powers were further diluted, so that today , with minor exceptions, all it can do is delay legislation for up to a year. (To be sure, the House of Lords is an appointed, not elected body like our Rajya sabha)
The reality is that the Rajya Sabha’s indirect elections are, indeed, akin to party nominations. This has been reinforced in recent years by two significant developments. The anti-defection law, while doing away with the ills of horse-trading, has had the unintended consequence of making party whips all-encompassing.This, in conjunction with the 2003 amendment that did away with secret voting by MLAs for Rajya Sabha candidates, has all but ensured that only party-nominated candidates win.
In theory , Rajya Sabha is supposed to represent the interests of states as a whole. But in practice, what it thus represents are the interests of parties, in fact of party leaderships.
The most striking example is the US Senate, which the Rajya Sabha resembles in its members’ terms of six years, with one-third retiring every two years. Originally , the US Senate was also indirectly elected from state legislatures, just like the Rajya Sabha today . But in 1913, during the so-called Progressive Era in the US that saw many political reforms, the constitution was amended to make Senators directly elected by the public of each state.
The effect was dramatic. It broke the hold of party bosses to nominate cronies with no alignment with public interest. And by requiring candidates to seek a plurality of votes all across a state, instead of just cosying up to party bosses, it forced eventual winners to reject fringe concerns in favour of large public interest.
India needs to choose one of two paths:
a) Emulating the UK or Italy would leave the Rajya Sabha electoral process intact, but reduce its powers. It would still have the ability to slow down the passage of bills to protect it from the hurry and strife of Lok Sabha. But it would no longer have the power to indefinitely block legislation i.e. veto power.
b) Pursuing the American example would leave the Rajya Sabha’s veto powers intact, but make election to it direct, by the public. That would make its members’ agendas much less insular, and more broadly aligned with public interest.