Bicameralism: Renewed Significance

In the 2014 general elections, the National Democratic Alliance (‘NDA’) has managed to bag 335 seats, and the Bharatiya Janta Party (‘BJP’) by itself has secured 282 seats – well above the simple majority mark of 272 seats that is required to form a government. Throughout the election season, the campaign pitch of the BJP and its Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had been ‘development’. Among the promises of economic growth, a key point of discussion has been the tardy rate of passage of bills in both Houses of the Parliament due to frequent disruptions. One of the appeals made by BJP during the campaign was for a sufficient mandate in order to form a ‘stable government’, and ensure the quick passage of bills. Indeed, the BJP ran a successful campaign and were given a strong mandate by the electorate to form a stable government.

In this post, I will argue that this general election has given a renewed significance to the idea of bicameralism, as theorized and practiced in India. According to the principle of bicameralism, the Indian Parliament has two legislative Houses: the House of the People (the Lok Sabha) and the Council of States (the Rajya Sabha). Members of the Lok Sabha are elected through a nationwide general election directly by the people for a five year term. The Rajya Sabha, on the other hand, has representatives from the States elected indirectly (modalities for election of Rajya Sabha members are provided in Article 80 of the Constitution). To put it briefly, bicameralism has been traditionally justified on two grounds: first, to serve the ideal of federalism, since the Rajya Sabha has representatives of the States and, second, to act as a forum for a second thought, as bills generally have to be passed by both Houses.

However, recently, there have been debates questioning the legitimacy of the Rajya Sabha and its necessity in today’s context (in this context, see here). Often, the justification behind the call for abolition is the delay caused in passing bills. Another contention is that the members of Rajya Sabha are indirectly elected as opposed to the direct mandate enjoyed by members of the Lok Sabha. Moreover, the federalism principle is well served due to rise of regional parties and coalition politics (see here).

However, the 2014 general election results give us fresh reasons that legitimize the theory of bicameralism. Let us highlight a few key points. For the first time since 1984, a party has been able to muster a majority on its own. The election was unique – almost Presidential in nature – as the BJP had projected Mr. Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate and rallied its entire campaign behind him (“Abki baar, Modi Sarkaar”). BJP’s vote share (31.2%) is also the lowest for any party securing the 272 majority – exposing the crack in our electoral system. Many regional parties fared poorly, with ruling parties like the JD(U) and SP getting only a couple of seats. Aside from parties, issue wise, the election was fought on emotional and controversial issues like the Godhra riots, minority appeasements, secularism, etc.

The above points highlight why the Rajya Sabha still plays a vital role. James Madison pointed out back in the 1780s in the Federalist papers that an institution like the Senate (analogous to the Rajya Sabha in India with respect to the character of state’s representation) “may sometimes be necessary, as a defence to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions” (Federalist No. 63). Indeed, Rajya Sabha plays a crucial counter-majoritarian role. While NDA has received comfortable majorities in the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha will make it imperative for the government to bring the opposition parties on board and strive to bring consensus. While often the judiciary is projected as a counter – majoritarian institution in constitutional thought, the Rajya Sabha also has a prominent role to play in counter-majoritarianism, especially in the light of rise of regional parties.

Unlike the Lok Sabha, the Rajya Sabha is a permanent body, members elected for six years, with one third of its members retiring every two years. Therefore, the Rajya Sabha provides different equations and represents different interests – indirectly representing the electorate in a dynamic manner, as a third of its members retire every two years. The Lok Sabha on the other hand, has members elected for five years, without any accountability.

The Rajya Sabha ensures that national and regional politics are distinguished and compartmentalized at the central Parliamentary level. An election fought at the national level with a projected Prime Ministerial candidate is likely to have different results than an election fought at the regional level. Therefore, it is important to have representatives from the State level – elected by the State level leaders – who are themselves elected by people based on state level issues. Due to the decline of regional parties at the national level elections, the Rajya Sabha will be a forum for their representation at the national level – as they are still successful in the States.

Lastly, the Rajya Sabha has indirectly elected members, which has inherent advantages such as insulation from emotional appeals.

The Rajya Sabha is not a redundant institution. It is rather a necessary institution which plays a vital and health role in our democracy and should not be abolished.


This post was authored by Vasujith Ram and Sohini Chatterjee, students at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences and members of NUJS Constitutional Law Society.


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