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It's time to reform the Rajya Sabha

April 02, 2012 11:14 IST

Chief ministers who have been championing federalism must take the lead in reforming the Rajya Sabha so that it truly represents the interests of their states rather than the permanent political interests of unelected party apparatchiks in Delhi, says Shashi Shekhar.

A whopping 55 individuals were elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha earlier this month. Of these 55, a fairly large number do not truly reside in the state they represent nor do they necessarily enjoy the confidence of the people in the states that they claim to speak on behalf of in Delhi.

Much of the controversy over the nominations to the Rajya Sabha has centered on the no-holds-barred public remarks by one dubious individual. On the other hand, there has been very little debate on how political parties have come to distribute Rajya Sabha tickets with not even the semblance of a contest.

In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the lack of public outrage over the years on the manner in which the Rajya Sabha has become an avenue for permanent political rehabilitation has contributed in many ways to the widespread political culture in Delhi of patronage and entitlement. 

Little wonder that critical remarks on the Rajya Sabha by the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Chauhan, in the past were met with instant censure from within his own party. The Bharatiya Janata Party may have much explaining to do on how dubious individuals got enmeshed with its Rajya Sabha election process in recent days. But to selectively outrage over one individual and the choices made by one party is to miss the point entirely on the unrepresentative and unaccountable nature of nominations to the Rajya Sabha by all political parties from all states.

Today the composition of the Rajya Sabha has little to do with the 'public interest' and far more to do with the 'public servant's interest', more specifically the 'political parties permanent interests' in Delhi.

It is in order here to consider the evolution of the United States Senate, for in its original form the US Senators were also elected by the individual state legislatures. In fact for over 100 years the US Senators were elected by the state legislatures in a manner not dissimilar from the Rajya Sabha.

Narrating the contentious history of indirect elections to the United States Senate, its website describes how after the 1850s the process underwent many changes in different states. It notes that intimidation and bribery had vitiated the elections in some states with over nine bribery cases reported between 1866 and 1906. It also narrates several political deadlocks resulting in a broken process around the same time period.

The process of reforming the United States Senate was not easy and politically contentious as perhaps any move to reform the Rajya Sabha will likely be. The first proposal for direct elections to the US Senate was made as early as 1826. Since then several representations were made to the US Congress to amend the law with multiple constitutional amendments being proposed.

The impetus for change began with one state deciding to change the process in the early 1900s. Soon 29 states elected their Senators by a popular referendum instead of going through the legislature. It was in 1913 with the 17th amendment to the US constitution that a standard process of directly electing the Senators through a state-wide ballot was finally institutionalised.

A state-wide ballot to elect representatives to the Rajya Sabha is a long overdue reform that will enable the house of states to rediscover its original purpose. Such a reform may also be an opportunity to re-work the composition from the current scheme, where larger states disproportionately influence the composition in the Rajya Sabha as opposed to smaller states.

A fixed number of Rajya Sabha seats to each state will also bring a much needed balance to Parliament in the true spirit of federalism. In fact, members of the Rajya Sabha who will be elected by state-wide ballots will be rightly empowered to speak on behalf of states' interests in Delhi as a check against the anti-federal impulses of the party in power in Delhi.

A reform of the Rajya Sabha requiring its members to be directly elected by the people of a state may pave the way for yet another long overdue course correction to our adolescent democracy. A state-wide ballot to elect a Rajya Sabha member would set a much needed precedent for directly elected executives at the state level.

The constitutional and political barriers for a wholesale switch to a Presidential form of government may be too steep. But a beginning can be made at the state level. From Nitish Kumar to Prithviraj Chavan, many chief ministers across the country today are increasingly opting out of the process of being directly elected by the people to the legislative assembly. A state-wide ballot may be the right method to bring back a culture of politics where chief ministers feel directly accountable to the people at a personal level.

Such a switch would be consistent with the original intent of the Constitution, for the Constituent Assembly at one point envisaged a directly elected governor in the states.

The mess in Jharkhand is bound to have an echo within politics in Delhi. But this is not merely about inner-party intrigue within the BJP nor is it a matter limited to the BJP. The Rajya Sabha needs urgent reform. Chief ministers who in recent days have been championing federalism and have been speaking up for states' interests must take the lead in reforming the house of states so that it truly represents the interests of their states rather than the permanent political interests of unelected party apparatchiks in Delhi.

Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at

Shashi Shekhar