The Odisha government’s decision to press ahead with its move for a legislative council has been greeted with cynicism in certain quarters, particularly the political opposition. The is of the view that it is more loaded with self-serving political motive than genuine concern for democratic representation. Some of this criticism is justified. But not the whole of it.
Yes, the real motive may not be to expand the consultative process as the government would claim but to rehabilitate political cronies or those itching to switching parties in the absence of the scope to be accommodated in the current establishment. Another house has monetary implications for a state already under a huge debt burden. The government estimates the cost at Rs 39 crore per year. The money could be better spent otherwise. The other argument that the legislative council would only delay decision-making also appears valid in the presence of evidence from Rajya Sabha in Parliament.
The BJP-led NDA government at the centre has been lukewarm to similar moves from states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Assam. Despite being cleared in the respective assemblies far ahead of Odisha they have made little headway. The proposals are in limbo after being sent to the parliamentary standing committee for consideration. The BJD government cleared the bill in September 2018 and expects it to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament. It’s unlikely that it would be allowed to jump the queue.
Moreover, the Constitution Amendment Bill would need the support of two-thirds majority in the houses of Parliament for passage. Even if the BJP is generous enough to back it, the BJD would still need the support of the members of the UPA. Given the strident opposition of the Congress to the bill in the state, the support may not be forthcoming. All these considerations make the 49-member upper house more an expression of intent than an immediate possibility.
Coming back to the criticism of the idea of the legislative council, the institution is not without its uses. Democracies need check and balance. A party with brute majority can easily force its malicious agenda through in the legislative assembly. An upper house can offer effective resistance to such a tendency. It can make the process of consultation more broad-based and nuanced, which would result in making laws more effective, less contentious and less prone to revisions. Delays are not necessarily bad in a democracy; they save us from the tyranny of hasty legislation.
From the perspective of representation, a new house makes the base broader. According to constitutional provisions, nearly 20 of the 49 members would be chosen from diverse constituencies such as teachers, graduates and persons of eminence from the field of art, science, literature, social service etc. Also, a third of the members would be from panchayati raj bodies. So far as participatory democracy goes, legislative council is not a bad idea. A unicameral house excludes many shades of opinion. While the criticism that it would be manipulated to be packed with supporters of the ruling party is valid, the truth is it holds true for all political parties. Once the current equation shifts, the playing field would be level.
A pertinent question about the legislative council would be on its powers. Rajya Sabha can shoot down a non-finance bill. This is not the case with legislative councils. The legislative assembly can override their decisions. This would make the position of the house more or less ornamental. The opposition should demand a change in the appropriate provision to provide more teeth to the council.