Manmohan Singh has been taunted time and again that he is the only prime minister who is from the Rajya Sabha and who did not ever face a direct election. It is both an inaccurate and unfair taunt in many ways. He is not the only prime minister from the Rajya Sabha. Deve Gowda and I.K.Gujral were members of the House when they became prime ministers of the short-lived and creaky United Front (UF) coalition in 1996 and 1997. There is the surprising and forgotten fact that Indira Gandhi was member of the Rajya Sabha when she became prime minister in January, 1966 after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death. She entered the Lok Sabha only in the 1967 general election. And of course, she became a member of the Rajya Sabha in 1964 when she was inducted into the Shastri cabinet in 1964. So, next time round Singh can cite the unimpeachable precedent!
The upper house is generally in news at the time of the biennial elections when one-third of the members comes up as it did last month, when some of the prominent ministers were apparently scrambling for seats as did Union commerce minister Anand Sarma and minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh, to mention the conspicuous two among others. And the familiar issue came up once again: Is the Rajya Sabha a house of convenience for all those politicians not good enough to fight and win a Lok Sabha seat? Eyebrows were also raised at the industrialists and business magnates like Vijay Mallya and Rahul Bajaj make it to the house. The question that cropped up: Are too many rich folk making their into the Rajya Sabha without the sweat and toil of fighting the election to Lok Sabha, which would require wooing a million voters and with no guarantee of a win.
Congress’ Mani Shankar who has just been sent to the house as part of the nominated list – there is an inherent piquancy to it – states the importance of the second chamber through a mordant jibe at his bete noir, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): “So long as S.S.Ahluwalia is running the Rajya Sabha from the BJP benches, there is no hope whatever of the Rajya Sabha ever functioning …When I throw my mind back to my youth, I recall giants like Bhupesh Gupta, C.N.Annadurai and Atal Bihari Vajpayee making the Rajya Sabha a scintillating arena of debate. Indeed, Vajpayee compelled Jawaharlal Nehru to hold a debate on the India-China war in the middle of the war on 8th November 1962. It also revealed the great democrat the first prime minister is. So whatever the constitutional and legal reasons, if the Ahluwalias of the Rajya Sabha will only let the House function and if only the presiding officer will not allow the Ahluwalias to usurp his role there is a place for a second chamber in our parliament.” Though his irritation and anger is directed against the BJP frontbencher is evident, Aiyar has pinpointed the virtues of Rajya Sabha by citing the era of giants half-a-century ago in contrast to the present day lows.
Ahluwalia, who has been in the upper house since 1986 is aware that people point fingers at him as the main most responsible for interruptions. “I am in the house from 11 to 6 or whenever the house gets adjourned for the day, and I interrupt when I see things going wrong. I cannot let them pass.” He reminds that there were other controversial people like Raj Narain, Piloo Modi and Kalp Nath Rai in the house who were not know to be quiet and passive. Ahluwalia argues that every political party tries to send its best talent to the house, even when it means breaking conventions as when Aiyar has been nominated from the Congress Party. He also feels that journalists should not judge the performance of members by what happens in the Question Hour and the Zero Hour when tempers run high.
That is also the point nominated member Shyam Benegal makes. He says, ‘The general impression is that the Lok Sabha is unruly and that Rajya Sabha too is becoming unruly.” He is not entirely surprised by this because he thinks that it is inevitable that the two houses of parliament reflect the ground reality of politics in the country. ‘It is not an idyllic place,” he says. But he feels that a nominated member like himself enjoys greater political freedom because he is not bound by political affiliations and that he can be more objective. “When a nominated member speaks, the house listens.”
Nilotpal Basu of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), who served for two terms from 1994 to 2006, makes the case in a less dramatic manner that the Rajya Sabha is not a redundant second chamber. He points out that no government at the centre has ever enjoyed absolute majority in the upper house and that in itself serves as a check on governments and the legislation they bring in. But he has concerns of another kind. He thinks that the recent amendments which removed the domicile rule for members to be elected from a particular state has compromised the federal aspect of the Rajya Sabha. That is, before this amendment, members who are elected to the upper house had to give proof that they are residents of the state. This has inevitably led to fudging of facts. For example, Manmohan Singh had to show a Guwahati address to prove that he is a resident there before he could be elected as a representative of Assam.
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