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Housing Problems

A loose cut from Jaitley and deep questions of structure play out

Housing Problems
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Politics is the art of the possible. This implies a willingness to strike compromises, embrace divergent views and reach out to opponents—taking care, however, to ensure that one is neither dancing to the tune of rivals nor perceived as doing so. The Narendra Modi government, crossing the one-year mark, needs to be reminded of that old dictum, considering the parliamentary logjam over key ‘pro-reforms’ bills, including the controversial amendment bill on land acquisition, which the government believes is necessary to power a surge in the growth rate.

The government has been able to pass these bills in the Lok Sabha, where it has a huge majority. But a determined Opposition has scuppered them in the Rajya Sabha, where the government is in a hopeless minority. What is the way out of the deadlock? Failing to bring around the Rajya Sabha, the government has taken a confrontationist path: Union finance minister Arun Jaitley questioned the authority of the Rajya Sabha. “It’s a serious question in parliamentary democracy, wherein the wisdom of a directly elected House is questioned repeatedly by an indirectly elected House,” he said, shortly after an extended session of Parliament came to a close. The irony: Jaitley, who has never been elected to the Lok Sabha, is the Leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha and has won accolades for leadership in the House. As a Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, during the UPA-II regime, he had defended disruption as a legitimate parliamentary tactic.

Jaitley’s barb may have been meant to draw attention to the government’s constraints. In the end, the controversy may amount to little. But many politicians and parliamentarians, sitting and retired, are stunned that someone has “belittled” the House of Elders. It speaks of a government that brooks no opposition. Says CPI leader A.B. Bardhan, “His statement is an insult to the Rajya Sabha, of which he is the Leader.” And former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee feels the federal structure is under threat. “Jaitley is challenging the very federal structure of having two different Houses. The Rajya Sabha has a distinctive identity and a role to play,” he says. “Today, he is an all-powerful minister, but he needs to be reminded that the Rajya House has a definite role to play. In his agony, he is challenging the very authority of the Rajya Sabha. He is not serving the country by doing this. He is sending a wrong message.”

The Rajya Sabha checks and balances the powers exercised by a party with a brute majority. The tendency of ruling parties to interpret democracy in simplistic terms of majority is an erroneous reading of democracy, says Neera Chandhoke, a visiting professorial fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru Universtity, Delhi. “Jaitley certainly does disservice to the House of which he has been a member for long by downgrading it as a hindrance and not seeing it as an essential component of democracy,” she says.

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Sharp cut Jaitley bears an ironic burden. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

It is not always necessary that both Houses agree on every issue. Therefore, a House like the Rajya Sabha, which has the reversionary role to play, keeps the Lok Sabha’s majoritarian impulses in check. Veteran journalist and Rajya Sabha member H.K. Dua says that whenever there’s disagreement, the best way is to “reach a national consensus through negotiation and discussion”. He cited the resolution of the dispute over the civil nuclear bill during the UPA regime, resolved following negotiations between Jaitley and Prithviraj Chavan, former MoS in the PMO.

When Indira Gandhi had the privy purse abolished through legislation in the Lok Sabha, it was defeated in the Rajya Sabha. A mid-term poll was held in 1971 and the ruling party returned with a two-thirds’ majority. The bill was passed in both Houses. As prime minister in the late 1980s, her son Rajiv Gandhi tried to push the Defamation Bill through. The Lok Sabha passed it, but there was a countrywide outcry that it was meant to muzzle the press. Going by the mood of the public, the bill was not introduced in the Rajya Sabha.

Shiv Visvanathan, well-known sociologist and political commentator, strongly advocates the need of the Rajya Sabha to check the “majoritanism” of the Lok Sabha. “The tenor and tenure of a Rajya Sabha is different. As the founders cautioned, it cannot be a rubber stamp.” He said that if the Lok Sabha, although supreme, does not listen to the Rajya Sabha, it would amount to “slapstick majority”.

In a parliamentary democracy, the Rajya Sabha has a distinct place and a necessity. “The Upper House restrains the influence of the ruling party. It provides checks and balances,” says eminent lawyer Fali A. Nari­man. The Congress too steamrolled bills when it was in majority in both Houses, he points out, decrying the present controversy as a “slanging match”.

Subhash C. Kashyap, constitutional expert and former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha, says the confrontation is dictated more by petty politics than serious differences on policies. “After all, the two main parties (the Congress and the BJP) are in favour of reforms,” he says, hinting that the obstacles before the government are not insurmountable should politicians be open to debate.

“On the one hand you have the prime minister kite-flying about India’s only holy book being the Constitution, and his minister, Leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha, mocks the very House he leads,” says Derek O’Brien, leader of the Trinamool parliamentary party. He takes a dig at Jaitley, an accomplished lawyer, saying he “is trained to argue weak cases...deep down, he knows his comments demeaning to the Rajya Sabha are meant to be HM (headline management) not PM (parliamentary management)”.

Jaitley’s throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater statement has become so controversial that there is an element of suspicion over the ultimate intention of the government. Former CPI(M) parliamentarian from Kerala P. Rajeev suspects that the government is trying to “dismantle the democratic structure and adopt an authoritarian regime” by trying to pass 90 per cent of the bills in the Lok Sabha without referring them to standing committees. He believes that the Upper House is trying to “ensure the democratic content of the legislative process, which is why the government is afraid to face the House.”

Since the Rajya Sabha represents the states, this “hierarchy flies in the face of federalism, which the Modi sarkar claims to be one of its major achievements”. Zoya Hasan, ICSSR National Fellow and former Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, is quick to remind Jaitley of the “double irony”: that he’s a Leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha; that he’d himself defended disruption as a parliamentary tactic.

Naresh Gujral, a Shiromani Akali Dal MP in Rajya Sabha, puts the onus on the Opposition. He thinks the Opposition is behaving like a disruptive force and not allowing bills to be put to vote. Reason: if defeated, a joint sitting will be convened and the bill may get passed. “It is a matter of both sides being wily. It is not a fair tactic,” he says.

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Many are shocked by the outburst of Jaitley who is known for his “intelligence”, “suave behaviour” and “sobriety”. He tried “very hard” to push some bills but he perhaps did not suppose that the Opposition would be “united and determined” the way it has been. Ambika Soni, Congress CWC member, sticks to the cut and thrust of politics, saying, “How about when the BJP-ruled states objected to GST when the party was in the Opposition? His statement evokes frustration; it is incredible, unjustified, unexpected and demeaning to the members of the Upper House.”

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The Powers Of The Upper House

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  • Both Houses of Parliament have equal powers except in matters related to money bills, in which the Rajya Sabha has no decisive role. The Rajya Sabha may express its views, but ultimately, it’s the Lok Sabha that has its way.
  • The Council of Ministers is collectiv­ely responsible only to the Lok Sabha. Formation and continuance of government depends on a party having a majority in the Lok Sabha. The ruling party may be in majority or minority in the Rajya Sabha. But this will have no bearing on the life of the government nor on its functioning.

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  • All bills except money bills must be passed by both Houses. If there’s disagreement or breakdown on a bill, a joint sitting of the Houses is called. The decision of the majority of those present and voting prevails.
  • A no-confidence motion against a government—even an adjournment motion—cannot be moved in the Rajya Sabha.
  • If the Rajya Sabha adopts a resolution by a two-thirds’ majority that it is “necessary or expedient in the national interest” for Parliament to make a law on a matter that happens to appear on the state list, Parliament becomes empowered to do so.

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  • If the Rajya Sabha adopts a resolution by a two-thirds’ majority that it is in the national interest to create a new all-India service cadre common to the Union and the States, Parliament becomes empowered to do so.
  • If a situation should arise that the Lok Sabha stands dissolved and fresh elections are yet to be held, and the President proclaims that there is a national emergency, the Rajya Sabha comes to enjoy special powers. Until the new Lok Sabha is elected, the approval of the Rajya Sabha will be sought in matters which might have gone to the Lok Sabha.

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