Insights into Editorial: GST’s Rajya Sabha impasse
01 June 2016
Italy is bracing up to curtail the power of its upper House. In this regard, it has passed a bill to bring in reforms and further, a referendum in October will lead to the constitutional overhaul. This portends more stable governments in the future.
Why this was necessary?
Italy has been a parliamentary democracy since World War II. But not even once did it elect a government that could last a full term of five years. It has had 63 different governments so far. One source of this instability is the nature of its bicameral legislature. Bicameral legislature had given rise to revolving-door governments and frequent charges of horse-trading.
The problem of the upper House of bicameral legislatures holding up crucial reform is also being experienced in India. India’s upper House is council of states whose members are elected indirectly by state legislatures. The Rajya Sabha represents the states. Its role is to provide checks and balances in lawmaking, to provide reason and deliberation, and to function beyond considerations of party politics.
Impasse over GST bill has brought back discussions surrounding the role of Rajya Sabha to the fore. The GST journey is already 16 years old. The roll-out of GST requires a constitutional amendment, and hence passage in both Houses. It has cleared the lower House. But now, it is stuck in the Rajya Sabha where it needs 164 votes. The GST is not a ‘money bill’, hence needs assent of both Houses.
Of the three technical objections raised regarding the GST bill in the Rajya Sabha, two have been sorted out. These relate to eliminating the 1% additional tax, and evolving an autonomous dispute resolution scheme. The only sticking point is whether to put an upper numerical limit in the law on the applicable tax rate.
- This can surely be incorporated in the rules that will be framed or in some appropriate manner. The Rajya Sabha should now develop an informal convention that a policy which has been thoroughly discussed, has broad and bipartisan support, and has passed with a majority in the lower House, should not be held up.
- As far as the GST bill is concerned, members of the Rajya Sabha should not be constrained by their party whip. An unnecessary impasse should be avoided.
All about Rajya Sabha:
The Upper House of the Indian Parliament traces its direct history to the first bicameral legislature introduced in British India in 1919 as a consequence of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. It was then called as the Council of states. Members were then elected by a narrow and elite group. No direct election was conducted.
Why we need Upper house?
- The Rajya Sabha is more immune to electoral interests. If a legislation that originates from the Lok Sabha is driven by popular will and brute majority, then Rajya Sabha can subject it to the broader test of rationality, practicality, relevance and reasonableness.
- It gives the constituent States of the Union a say in running the country’s affairs. Members of Rajya Sabha are directly elected by state legislatures and not by the people.
- Since it has continuity, it can carry out some administrative functions even when the lower house is dissolved.
- It provides space for experts. Governments in the past have taken advantage of the Upper House to hire lateral talent. Individuals of repute who were either talented or had private sector experience were inducted so they could bring fresh ideas and knowledge in various ministries that desperately needed them.
Why we do not need Upper house?
- Sometimes deliberations in Rajya Sabha can slow down legislation or eventually kill it. The Rajya Sabha’s delay and intransigence can also become counter-productive.
- With our polity becoming increasingly fragmented, regions and states are well represented in the Lower House by various parties. The fear of states not having enough representation in Parliament is not true anymore.
- The Upper House has become a paradise for party fund-raisers, losers in elections, crony capitalists, journalists, retired CEOs and civil servants.
- It has become a platform for parties to further their political agenda than to debate and improve legislation. Important legislations that are passed in the Lok Sabha are scuttled in Rajya Sabha for political reasons.
- It has also increased the financial burden of the exchequer. Savings from elimination of the Upper House can be more gainfully deployed for either building infrastructure or enhancing social development or other meaningful projects.
What reforms are needed?
- Members of Rajya Sabha should be directly elected by the citizens of a state. This will reduce cronyism and patronage appointments.
- It is also necessary to ensure that large states do not dominate the proceeding in the house. Hence, all states should be equally represented.
- The members of the Rajya Sabha elected from a particular state should put the interest of the state above that of the party. And the state legislature that elects them should question them about their performance.
India needs to abolish certain institutions, reform others and create new ones for governance to improve. However, it is virtually impossible to abolish the Rajya Sabha without adopting a new Indian Constitution. The bicameral nature of the Indian Parliament is likely to be interpreted as a “basic structure” of the Indian Constitution, rendering it incapable of being amended. Thus, it is much more practical to try and reform the Rajya Sabha than seeking to abolish it.