The Second Chamber
The Tamil Nadu Legislative Council Bill was enacted in Parliament during the last two days of the Budget Session and the debate on the Bill was not just reflective of party positions but also threw up some interesting questions of constitutional importance. While Article 168 of the Constitution provides generally for the state legislature, consisting of the governor and both Houses, if bicameral and one, where the Council has been abolished,
Article 169 of our Constitution gives Parliament the right to enact law abolishing or creating the Legislative Council in any state provided the Legislative Assembly of the state passes a resolution to that effect with a majority of the total membership of the Assembly and by a majority of not less than two thirds of the members present and voting. Article 171 of the Constitution provides for the composition of the Legislative Councils.
At present, there are Legislative Councils only in six states in our country, namely Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir. Now Tamil Nadu has joined that list and will soon establish its Legislative Council while requests from Punjab and Assam are pending for consideration by Parliament.
The origin of bicameral legislatures is as old as the concept of democracy. It is said that the early Romans understood the tendency of the “Plebs” as the assemblage of free citizens who talked at great length while actually achieving or deciding little. Hence, they hit upon the notion of placing the actual business of governance in the hands of two consuls, who were assisted by a council of elders called the Senate, drawing from the root of the word “senex”, meaning old man. The Second Chamber was born, although it was far different from the modern concept of the second chamber.
Abbe Sieyes, an early political commentator, remarked about bicameralism that: “If a second chamber disagrees from the first, it is mischievous, if it agrees, it is superfluous”. Benjamin Franklin declared that bicameralism would be like a carriage drawn by one horse in front and another behind pulling it in opposite directions. However, other eminent commentators like Montesquieu argued in favour of checks and balances which would be introduced by a bicameral legislature and some who agreed with this school of thought mentioned the analogy of Washington pouring hot tea from his cup into the saucer to allow it to cool, illustrating the value of the American Senate as a body moderating the impulsive tendencies inherent in the House of Representatives.
In our own democracy, the arguments for and against second chambers were familiar to the members of the Constituent Assembly. Under the Government of India Act 1919, two chambers were provided for and the 1935 Act followed this line. In the Constituent Assembly, Gopalaswami Ayyangar argued that the need for second chambers has been felt practically all over the world wherever there are federations and second chambers would be useful “to hold dignified debate on important issues and delay legislation on which might be the outcome of the passions of the moment to act as guardians of democracy and popular will, but not to prove to be a hurdle either to legislation or administration. However, Dr B.R. Ambedkar did not agree and only accepted the concept of bicameralism as an experimental measure.
In modern India, there can be no doubt that a bicameral legislature is an indubitable necessity in our federal system. It is obvious from our experience of six decades of democracy that neither the Rajya Sabha nor the Councils in the states have ever been chambers that delay or hinder legislation as feared by earlier thinkers. On the contrary, eminent Indians have been members of the Upper Houses, including in Tamil Nadu, and have contributed tremendously through debate and discussion to the enactment of good legislation and the growth of our democracy. Examples being the first and only Governor-General of India, Rajaji, and also for a brief period Anna. The second chambers of legislature have proved to be sober and mature forums of discussion where the issues of the day are debated in an atmosphere of learning and calm reason. Of course, the fracas over the Women’s Reservation Bill that recently became a permanent blot on the conduct of the Rajya Sabha are exceptions which are thankfully rare.
Even today the existence of the Rajya Sabha is not in any question and there is universal acceptance of its constitutional importance. The only debate is over the second chamber in the states, particularly in view of the fact that our Constitution has provided in the same Article 169 that allows the creation of the Upper House in the state and the power to also abolish the second chamber. This, it is argued, will give undue power to the state government of the day and bring about an anomalous situation where Legislative Councils may be created and abolished every time a new government is elected. Obviously, however, this cannot be a reason to throw the baby out along with the bathwater. It does not follow from this that second chambers are not desirable. Rather, it would emphasise the importance of evolving a national policy on uniformity regarding the existence of second chambers in the states and even if required, amending Article 169 to ensure that second chambers, once created, cannot be removed at the whim and fancy of a newly-elected government.
Today, there is a feeling of alienation among large sections of our population who believe that the business of legislation and governance are well beyond their reach. A second chamber which would have representatives from the Teachers or Graduate Constituencies, from the panchayati raj institutions, from doctors, lawyers, educationists and other eminent citizens would become a wonderful forum where these sections who do not necessarily want to enter the rough and tumble of party politics can make their valuable contribution to the running of our democracy. In this context it is clear that this noble purpose will not be served unless merit and eminence and quality distinguish those elected to the Councils since otherwise the atmosphere of the second chamber will become vitiated and fail to serve its purpose.
The arguments against bicameralism in the states on the grounds of additional expense are simply unimportant in the face of the very real advantages of inclusive and participatory democracy. The need for a second chamber in our states is as much a reality in modern India as it was when our founding fathers drafted Article 169 of the Constitution.
Jayanthi Natarajan is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and AICC spokesperson.
The views expressed in this column are her own.