New Zealanders could opt for an Upper House

Politicians and students of international politics would be aware of a rare coincidence occurring this year in Indian and New Zealand polity.

As New Zealanders vote in this year’s General Election, they would also participate in a referendum on the need to continue the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system of determining Members of Parliament.

A somewhat similar debate has begun in India, with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan advocating the abolition of Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament. He however retracted his statement, although public discussion of the issue would continue for a length of time.

Interestingly, the debate on the need of the Upper House in India comes at a time when New Zealand observes the 60th year since the abolition of its Legislative Council in 1951. Established through the Constitutional Act (1852), New Zealand had members of the Upper House appointed for a seven-year term.

Current debates in New Zealand are over electoral reforms without any discussion on the Upper House. On the other hand, debates in India are centred around the Upper House without much talk on the electoral reforms.

The Differences

While both India and New Zealand subscribe to Parliamentary Democracy, they are respectively Bicameral and Unicameral.

The bicameralism reflects India’s different social classes.

The Rajya Sabha comprises 250 members, 12 of who are nominated by the President to represent art, literature, science and social services. The remaining members are elected legislatures of the states and territories. Members of the Upper House have a six-year term, while the elected representatives of the Lower House (Lok Sabha) hold their office for five years. One third of the Upper House members retire every year on a revolving basis.

Mr Chauhan rightly said that the nomination procedure for Rajya Sabha was corrupt. Corporate leaders could be elected and control legislation affecting ordinary people. It is also true that electoral candidates, defeated in their constituency, could enter Parliament through the backdoor and stake their claim to the posts of Prime Minister or Ministers. Apart from Dr Manmohan Singh, many former Prime Ministers including Indira Gandhi, Inder Kumar Gujral and Deve Gowda have been members of the Rajya Sabha.

Elections for the 545 member Parliament are held every five years under the First Past Post (FPP) system in which the highest polling candidate in each of the constituencies is declared winner. About 130 electorates are reserved for members of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), along the lines of the seven Maori electorates in New Zealand.

There are no such reservations in India’s Upper House.

Unifying Force

Apart from the 12 nominated members, 238 members of Rajya Sabha are elected through state assemblies and Union Territories. The Upper House was evolved to function as a watchdog of the Government and enable the States to have a say in the Union Government. This was done to attract the States to join the Union without much ado after India obtained independence in 1947.

In many ways, Rajya Sabha was a colonial brainchild. The federal structure of government, provincial autonomy, bicameral legislature, the state assemblies, and many other features were a replica of the British system of governance.

India’s problems with the FPP system could be understood from the election held recently in Bihar. Out of 243 electorates, incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar led Janata Dal (U)-Bharatiya Janata Party combine won four-fifths majority, but secured only 39%, a 3% growth from the last elections held in October 2005. The ruling coalition won 206 seats, and the remaining by the combined opposition.

Senate in cold storage

New Zealand itself saw FPP’s vagaries in 1978 and 1981 general elections. While Labour won more votes than National, the latter could muster more seats in the Parliament and remain in power.

New Zealand voters this year would also be asked to specify their choice between MMP and FPP. Research shows that other systems such as Preferential Voting, Single Transferable Vote and Supplementary Member may not have public favour.

If New Zealand returns to FPP, there would an Upper House to control the legislature; if India abolished the Rajya Sabha, it will return to the MMP system.

New Zealand and India have inherited much of the British Parliamentary legacy. But the need to have in-built mechanisms for checks and balances cannot be overemphasised.

Can there be a proper system of checks and balances?

The answer to this question would depend on the need for Upper House in India and New Zealand.

It may be ideal to look at the Australian model.

Australia has a parliamentary democracy on the Westminster style but a powerful Senate, based on the American System. There could be a provision for reservations for say SCs and STs in India and Maoris in New Zealand but the number of seats would pose a perennial problem.

Sidney Holland’s National Government set up a Constitutional Reform Committee in September 1950 (following the abolition of the Upper House) to consider an alternative second chamber.

Chaired by National Leader Ronald Algie, the Committee recommended a nominated Senate with 32 members appointed by leaders of the parties in the House of Representatives, according to their strength.

The Senators were to serve three year-terms, and be eligible for reappointment.

The Senate would have the power to revise, initiate or delay legislation, to hear petitions, and scrutinise regulations and Orders.

But the proposals were rejected by both by the then Prime Minister and the Labour Party in opposition.

It took another 40 years until Jim Bolger’s National Government proposed the establishment of a directly elected Senate along with the electoral reforms.

A Bill was drafted, envisaging that the Senate would have 30 members, elected by Single Transferable Vote (STV) from New Zealand’s six districts.

It did not see the light of the day.

It is time for policy makers in India and New Zealand to start seriously debating on Electoral and Constitutional reforms centred on the Upper House for effective functioning of democracy.

Balaji Chandramohan is Editor, Asia for World Security Network and Correspondent for World News Forecast.

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