An Upper House where no party commands majority

By Wednesday, February 13, after the Interim Budget is passed, the 16th Lok Sabha will become history. In another fortnight or so, the model code of conduct will come into effect and the country will formally get into election mode. Normal governance will resume at the end of May when the duly elected government will be sworn in by the President. Elections are a key feature of a functioning democracy and it is only natural that all the political players, whether in government or the opposition, should focus their attention on securing a mandate from the people.

Yes, it is undeniable that India has too many elections. Even if the Lok Sabha is elected once in five years, every intervening year has a clutch of State Assembly elections. Each of these elections are important to different sections of the country and a great deal of energy and attention is expended on the campaign, not to speak of the large amounts of money expended.

The overdose of elections may seem a distraction, especially because governance comes to a halt for nearly two months between the time the model code comes into play and a new government assumes charge. However, all the attempts by different leaders from L K Advani to Narendra Modi to press for simultaneous elections—so that all politicking and disruptions become a five-yearly affair—have come to nought. The ideas have been dismissed as undemocratic and inimical to the federal spirit. The lock of consensus has meant that no government has been able to put a good idea into effect.

Maybe this is an idea whose time has yet to come. However, even within the constraints of the present system, it is acknowledged that a government with a majority in the legislature should be allowed to govern without hinderance for five years—the term stipulated by the Constitution. Only one in India’s 71-year post-Independence history has the term of a legislature been extended beyond five years.

That shameful extension happened when Indira Gandhi extended the term of the 5th Lok Sabha during the Emergency. However, unless India is in the midst of war, it is unlikely that such an experience will ever be repeated. The inefficiencies resulting from an overdose of elections has been internalised by people. As of now, they don’t want annual festivals of democracy to be converted into a once-in-five-years experience.

The sanctity of annual bouts of public consultations would have become more meaningful if governments were allowed to govern for their full term—assuming, of course, that they have majority support in the legislatures. While this may be true of state governments, this, unfortunately, cannot be said to be true for the government at the Centre. As the Narendra Modi government prepares to complete its tenure and face the elections, it must be painfully aware that its job is still incomplete.

I am not referring to any legislation facilitating the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya or, for that matter, any Constitutional Amendment that will finally terminate the “temporary” Article 370 conferring Special Status on Jammu and Kashmir. Important as these subjects are for the BJP, these are not issues that the government put on top of the agenda and then failed to deliver. What I have in mind are pieces of legislation that have been cleared by the Lok Sabha and are awaiting approval by the Rajya Sabha.

The list is fairly impressive. They range from controversial bills such as the law to make Triple Talaq—already outlawed by the Supreme Court—a criminal offence and the Citizenship Amendment Bill that fast-tracks the process whereby Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan can acquire Indian citizenship. At the same time they also include proposed changes to the Motor Vehicles Act and the Archaeological and Ancient Monuments Act. Both these pieces of legislation have gone to Select Committees of the Rajya Sabha that have submitted reports.

As of now it seems that none of these Bills will become laws for the simple reason that the Rajya Sabha hasn’t cleared them. With only three days of the present session left, the Rajya Sabha, is yet to complete a single day of business. Each day of the present session—apart from the President’s address to the joint session of Parliament—has witnessed disruptions and adjournments on some pretext or another. It is extremely unlikely that the remaining three days will see any business apart from a motion thanking the President for his address.

I may be mistaken and it is entirely possible that a determined government will try to somehow get a few Bills passed. Even if it does so, there is unlikely to be any satisfactory discussion as a section of the Opposition will probably do its utmost to stall proceedings and force adjournments.

The Opposition knows that any Bill that has originated from the Lok Sabha will automatically lapse with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. Having convinced itself that the term of the Modi government has already expired, it is in no mood to let the government govern. Consequently, the Rajya Sabha has been turned into a blocking chamber.

That this strategy of Opposition through disruptions goes against the very spirit of democracy is obvious. The long-term costs of a dysfunctional democracy are quite catastrophic. More to the point, the implications of a truly multi-party democracy on governance are quite ominous.

The Modi government has suffered on account of the Rajya Sabha throughout its term. If it is re-elected in May, how will it deal with the problem? Indeed, how will any government deal with an Upper House where no party commands a majority?

Swapan Dasgupta  is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.

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