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Rajya Sabha

One of the most interesting aspects of the recent visit to India by a Parliamentary delegation was the opportunity it gave us to learn more about the Indian upper house and the way it functions. We were taken in to a meeting of the Rajya Sabha as it is called, and did not have to endure any protests, as had happened in the Lok Sabha – though I should note here that, while media attention was concentrated on the ten or so members who shouted at us, the 500 and more who cheered us were ignored, friendship obviously not being as notable in media parlance as hostility. And we should also register the authoritative but dignified way in which the Lady Speaker handled the situation, shooting down singlehanded it seemed the vociferous shouts of the unruly members.

There was a different scene in the Rajya Sabha, when one member insisted on making a protest and then walking out. I was told later that this was a member of the DMK, and he could not allow his party to be outdone, since the protest in the morning had been led by Jayalalitha’s AIDMK. The Chair of the upper house, who is also Vice-President of India, an extremely dignified Muslim gentleman, was not equal to shouting down his recalcitrant member, but that would not have been appropriate perhaps in that house. His apology however was equally sincere, and the rest of his membership, including a very articlulate member from Tamilnadu, more than made up for the embarrassment.

But that is the very nature of an upper house, a forum for quiet and collegiate discussion, where different approaches can be reconciled without recourse to the dramatization that is the essence of lower house debates all over the world. I have already mentioned the need to improve our committee system in Parliament, so as to develop opportunities for informed discussion and the building of consensus.  But whereas that is part of the inner workings of a lower house, it is the very essence of an upper house which, while necessarily subordinate in legislative and other parliamentary powers to its twin, usually has a larger role to play with regard to fine-tuning legislation and ensuring responsiveness to non-political concerns.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2011
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