Bicameralism in the states: the need for a diverse legislature

The Upper House should be of a diverse composition with knowledgeable and wise persons, and not a safe haven for unelectable politicians.

raisina hill In 1986, the Madras Court disqualified A B Shanthi’s nomination to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Council on grounds of insolvency. The then Chief Minister M G Ramachandran took it as a personal affront. A B Shanthi, also known as Venniradai Nirmala, was a film actress known for her debut along with J Jayalalitha in Vennira Aadai in 1965 and had been nominated to the upper house of the Tamil Nadu legislature by the governor on MGR’s advice.

A miffed MGR’s government passed a resolution in the Assembly to abolish the Legislative Council. The Parliament in the same year enacted the Tamil Nadu Legislative Council (Abolition) Bill and made the Tamil Nadu state legislature a unicameral one. The Parliament has the power to create or abolish legislative councils if the state assembly passes a resolution saying so.

While the abolition of the Tamil Nadu council is thought of as a personal whim of MGR, the real reason was political. The opposition party in the assembly, the DMK had done well in the elections in the local bodies and was likely to get a majority in the upper house. MGR anticipating problems from the upper house decided to abolish it altogether. The issue of Tamil Nadu’s Legislative Council is still unresolved, with the DMK having tried to unsuccessfully revive the Legislative Council a few times, as latest as 2010.

The upper house in state legislatures is the essence of bicameralism. And states, as shown by Tamil Nadu, do not like bicameralism. They are seen as unnecessary and wasteful expenditures acting as hurdles in legislation or even obstructing them, if the opposition of the assembly has a majority in the council. In fact, Andhra Pradesh which abolished the council in 1985 had a similar political issue as the Telugu Desam government attempted to prevent a Congress majority in the council. The AP council however was later revived in 2006. Before these two states, West Bengal and Punjab, both of which had bicameral legislatures before partition, had abolished their legislative councils the late 1960s.

A bicameral legislature balances the over zealousness of lawmakers by delaying hasty legislations. We have seen in the recent past how important laws and budgets which require careful drafting and sufficient time and thought have been rushed through legislatures with barely any discussion, both at the Union and the state level. These incidents can be prevented by a more thoughtful deliberative house whose composition is different from the lower house.

The second issue in bicameralism is of providing varied representation and bringing in knowledgeable persons, experts in their fields, in the process of law-making. The members of the Rajya Sabha represent the states, but the social, educational and economic profile of the members is not too different from the members of Lok Sabha. The profile of all members has drastically changed from the Constituent Assembly which had a plethora of lawyers to only 76 members of the 15th Lok Sabha describing themselves as lawyers or advocates whereas an overwhelming 246 members being agriculturists or farmers. The Rajya Sabha and the legislative councils do have some nominated members from the fields of art, literature, science and social service but they are in a minority.

Adult suffrage, according to Dr S Radhakrishnan, is the most powerful instrument devised by man for breaking down social and economic injustice. However bicameralism looks beyond adult franchise for a more successful democracy. The Constituent Assembly had thoughtful debates on this issue when it came to the provincial legislatures and did consider the Irish model of functional representation which has vocational electorate panels such as administration, agriculture, culture & education, industry & commerce and labour. It also considered suggestions on giving representation to persons from the field of medicine, engineering, religion and philosophy, voluntary social service and agricultural labour. However, somewhere in the deliberations this idea seems to have been diluted and the final draft of the constitution gave the legislative councils a composition of members indirectly by the lower house, members elected by panchayat and municipal bodies, members nominated by the governor and members elected from the ‘teachers constituency’ and the ‘graduates constituency’. Elections for these seats are conducted using the preferential voting system unlike the first-past-the-post system used for the legislative assembly.

Dr P S Deshmukh, a member of the Constituent Assembly, during a discussion on the composition of the Legislative Council made rather prophetic remarks when he pointed out that the composition of the upper house will not be radically different from that of the lower house and doubted if teachers and graduates would be chosen among the best elements of society. Deshmukh was right. Today, the profile of a majority of the members of the legislative council is therefore not too different from that of the assembly.

Also, the ‘educational’ constituencies are somewhat misleading. The Teachers Constituency, for example, is an electorate consisting of teachers belonging to the state. But the law does not require a candidate to be a teacher. Similarly, the Graduates Constituency is an electorate consisting of graduates residing in the state. And just like the teachers constituency, there is no requirement that a candidate from the graduates constituency should necessarily be a graduate. There is also no condition that the voters should have graduated from a university from that state. As expected, a glance at the list of members from teachers and graduates constituencies in each of the states reveals that they are members of the political parties of the state.

But there is a difference between these two electorates. Teachers are organised in unions but graduates are not. Elections to the teachers constituencies are keenly contested by leaders of teacher associations usually with politically affiliations. Despite increased education, there is poor awareness about the graduate constituency. In 2012, the Bangalore graduates constituency had 90,000 out of over 20 lakh graduates registered, which was less than 5 percent of eligible voters.In the Mumbai Graduates constituency only 91,650 voters were registered which is extremely low for a city with a population of over 18 million.

The educational profile of legislators has also improved with the percentage of graduate Lok Sabha members at 79 percent and members without secondary education at 3 percent. But although the electorate has also expanded, it has not resulted in a corresponding rise in turnout. Only 35 percent of the 90,000 registered voters came out to vote. It is doubtful therefore if the legislators from the graduates constituency truly represent all graduates of the state.

It is hence necessary to consider a relook at the composition of the legislative councils for better representation for the otherwise unrepresented. The upper house which is often called as a ‘house of elders’. The minimum age is also higher for the Rajya Sabha and the legislative councils. But in a country where more than 65 percent of the population are below the age of 35, we see that 86 percent of the MPs in Lok Sabha are over the age of 40. Considering that is a need for better representation for the majority population, the upper houses could do well by lowering the age barrier and infusing younger blood in the legislatures. The graduate constituency could be modified to a students constituency where university senates can send their representatives to the legislative councils, as they did in pre-independence provincial legislatures. This scheme is present in the upper house of the Parliament of Ireland which has separate electorates for universities.

Similarly, we could also consider looking at the legislatures of Hong Kong and Macau which have functional constituencies for business, labour, professionals, education, culture, sports, architecture, teaching, medical, and social welfare. Pre-independence councils did have special electorates for the chambers of commerce and in an emerging economy it may be necessary to give a voice to the trade and industry community. There is a chance though, of these functional constituencies falling prey to political partisanship like the teachers and graduates constituencies have. However, proper drafting can prevent this.

The debate on bicameralism is an old one, with staunch supporters on either side. But it is the decision of a state whether they require two houses of legislatures or not. If a state does choose to have an upper house, it should be of a diverse composition with knowledgeable and wise persons, and not failed or unelectable politicians and  leaders trying to make a backdoor entry into public life.

Photo: Christian Haugen