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Haven Of Orderly Greed?

Can we allow the Upper House to become a haven of devious, mischievous, non-performing politicians and dubious businessmen?

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma

That’s not an Assembly where there are no eldermen, Those are not elders, who do not speak With righteousness where there is no truth, That’s not the truth which leads one to Deceit — Mahabharata 5.35.58

In times when allegations are rife about qualifications and degree certificates of holders of the highest office and political leaders at both the Centre and the States, it is highly imperative that we review our perspective of the Indian democratic system and its efficacy. How do we devise a near foolproof process that ensures that the most able and deserving men and women occupy our elected public offices? How do we perfect a filtering process? Could we structure an ideal mechanism that does that?

The recent Rajya Sabha elections in eight States have been rather contentious, wherein filthy lucre worth crores of rupees, has ostensibly changed hands to procure membership. As Marcellus said in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark; the fish is rotting from the head down — all is not well at the top of the political hierarchy.”

Can we allow the Upper House to become a haven of devious, mischievous, non-performing politicians and dubious businessmen? Why must the system allow influential individuals to capture power and position without meeting the basic criteria and expected standards of integrity and performance? This unique phenomenon is aptly summed up by Matt Taibbi, in his celebrated work, Griftopia. “In a society governed passively by free markets and free elections,” Taibbi says, “organised greed always defeats disorganised democracy.”

In this perilous backdrop, it is extremely important for us to examine the Upper House and the role envisaged for it in the Constitution by its founding fathers. We need to examine its prognosis as an institution to further democracy, to ensure excellence in governance and as a strong pillar of the State. The growing power and status of the Upper House was amply established when a former Prime Minister of India defied convention to remain its member during his entire tenure of 10 years. In his recent address to the joint session of the US Congress, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned his government’s concerns about the Upper House.

The Rajya Sabha was envisaged as a body with a continuous existence and as a repository of high wisdom. The six-year permanent term of Rajya Sabha members should have provided them ample opportunity to absorb themselves with long-term policy perspectives and issues of stability in governance. The Upper House was intended to have a sobering influence over hasty legislative actions by the House of the People and weld a healthy consensus on all matters, by creating an atmosphere of enlightened cooperation. The Upper House is also required to uphold the interests of the states in the spirit of a federal polity. An example of an errant Upper House was the hastily passed legislation on the division of the state of Andhra Pradesh, on the eve of a general election. The Act has now been challenged by more than 20 writ petitions in the Supreme Court.

A quick-fix solution to reform this institution could be a precursor to reforming many others. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) under the chairmanship of Justice M. N. Venkatachalaiah was such an initiative. The commission pondered on reforms in the political parties and their functioning and presented a voluminous report of 2,000 pages, containing 249 recommendations. The NDA government in power then was replaced by a Congress-led coalition, which let the report gather dust.

The NCRWC took into account the malformation and functioning of our electoral system and reviewed the previous efforts at reforms, which include:
* The Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms (1990)
* The Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections (1998)
* The Law Commission’s report on Reform of the Electoral Laws (1999).

As a reformatory measure, the Parliament later amended the Representation of People Act 1951 and removed the requirements for ‘secret ballot’ and ‘domicile requirement’ for the Rajya Sabha. Both amendments have been upheld by the apex court. The stipulation on domicile may have become somewhat obsolete, but removing the provision for a ‘secret ballot’ goes against the democratic norms of voting in accordance with one’s conscience and replaces it with a hegemony of political parties. It creates a dangerous precedence, in which all voting may simply be carried out by the Leader of the Party in the House. The recent allegations of cross-voting in the Haryana and Karnataka legislatures, defying the party high command during the Rajya Sabha elections, establishes that the procedure was faulty.

So, what is the panacea for the malaise in the Rajya Sabha, the procedure to the membership of which often blatantly violates the letter and spirit of the Constitution? The President of the Constituent Assembly, Rajendra Prasad, had said in the context of the debates on Article 80 of the Indian Constitution: “In this country we require very high qualifications for anyone who is appointed as a Judge to interpret the law which is passed by the legislature… But it seems that members are of opinion that a man who has to make the law needs no qualification at all, and legislature, if we take the extreme case, consisting of persons with no qualifications at all may pass something which is nonsensical and the wisdom of all the lawyers and all the Judges will be required to interpret that law.”

Clause C of Article 84 stipulates that a contender for a seat in the Council of States should possess “such other qualifications as may be prescribed in that behalf by or under any law made by Parliament”. It is high time that suitable legislation gave effect to Clause C of Article 84, which has become a dead letter in the Indian Constitution. Political parties should make every effort to field candidates who are highly qualified, or are distinguished persons with proven track records of meritorious distinction and integrity in public life.

To ensure that Rajya Sabha members have great erudition and excellence, the President is empowered to nominate 12 members of remarkable distinction in various fields of literature, science, art and social service to the Upper House. The Constitutional provision sets the tone for the kind of individuals the Rajya Sabha is expected to house. Any deviation from the standard the Constitution establishes is nothing short of undermining the document that enshrines this Union.

In 1998, G.V.G. Krishnamurthy, former, election commissioner of India, mooted fixing minimum qualifications of XIIth class (matriculation/high school) for the Lok Sabha, since statistics showed that about three per cent of the members were absolutely uneducated. A statistical study has revealed that 83.51 per cent of the people surveyed, favour well-educated candidates with a clean image and no criminal background. An amendment to the Constitution could ensure these standards, but successive governments have ignored these proposals. Latest data shows that the 11th Lok Sabha had 117 non-graduates, while the Rajya Sabha shockingly, had 26 non-graduates.

The philosopher Plato had stipulated 40 years as the age for entry into politics, which could have been taken into account in prescribing the minimum age for elections to either House of Parliament. Surely, the Rajya Sabha should not be the training ground for the young progeny of powerful political leaders? Change can only come from idealism, followed up with passion.

Suzy Kassem pithily said in Rise Up and Salute the Sun:“Pick a leader who will make their citizens proud. One who will stir the hearts of the people, so that the sons and daughters of a given nation strive to emulate their leader’s greatness. Only then will a nation be truly great, when a leader inspires and produces citizens worthy of becoming future leaders, honourable decision makers and peacemakers. And in these times, a great leader must be extremely brave. Their leadership must be steered only by their conscience, not a bribe.”

Needless to say, such reforms can only be brought about by truly enlightened citizens of India who pursue it through a national dialogue and vow not to give up the cause till the objective has been achieved. It is, therefore, up to the people of India and the intelligentsia to launch a movement through academic circles in colleges and universities — the print and electronic media and, of course — the legal fraternity.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

G. Venkatesh Rao

Prof. Rao is an Advocate Supreme Court of India.

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