Bicameralism in states in India

Disclaimer: The article here (and other similar ones I intend to follow this up with) is not intended to be thoroughly academic, replete with references to constitutional history and debates. Rather, it is an attempt to give an overview of the issue; provide talking points for a few minutes.
Of course, all this is with the view of keeping myself engaged with the process of preparation as part of the UPSC CSE journey, which is said to have been documented well in the latest series by TVF, “Aspirants” (I haven’t watched the show yet.).

Recently, the cabinet in West Bengal approved a decision to (re)establish a legislative council in the state. Now, under Art 169 of the Constitution, the treasury benches will have to introduce a resolution to that effect in the Legislative Assembly and get it passed by a special majority: absolute majority of the total strength of the house, along with two-thirds of the members present and voting, voting in favor of the resolution. It must be noted that West Bengal had a legislative council until 1969, before it was abolished by the United Front government. Given that the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has 213 seats out of 294 in the recently elected assembly, the resolution is expected to sail through the assembly.

While the establishment of the council was part of the TMC’s election manifesto, the need became pertinent after the TMC supremo, Ms. Mamata Bandopadhyay lost her own seat in Nandigram, despite leading the TMC to a stupendous victory. A person can continue to hold a ministerial post only for six months, within which s/he needs to become a member of either house of the legislature. Hence, the idea was to establish the legislative council and get herself elected to the upper house of the state.

The catch, however, lies in Art 169. Despite the state assembly passing a resolution for establishing a legislative council (or its abolition) with the required mandate, it is the Parliament which has to ultimately pass a law giving effect to the resolution (“..the Parliament may by law..”. Given the not-so-friendly relations (putting it mildly!) between the TMC and the ruling BJP at the Centre, it is unlikely to be passed soon. After all, resolutions from Assam and Rajasthan for establishing a council and from Andhra Pradesh to abolish the council have been pending for years now.

According to the latest developments, Mamata Bandopadhyay looks set to take the legislative assembly route, with her party’s MLA vacating her traditional seat. Now, by-elections need to be conducted by the Election Commission for the vacant seats.

Bicameralism was introduced in India through the Government of India Act, 1919 (Montague — Chelmsford Reforms), where the Upper House was established at the central level. By the GoI Act, 1935, bicameralism was introduced in provinces. In 1937, under the same act, the upper house was established in the Bengal Province.

When the framers of the Constitution had to decide on the nature of state legislatures, there was some opposition to bicameralism. Prof K T Shah is said to have opposed the same, remarking that the legislative council in states would become vehicles to park unelected legislators and may become a source of patronage, rather than houses of deliberation and debate; that they would be a drain on the state exchequer — criticisms which are not wholly unjustified, when one looks at the present state of affairs.

However, after due discussion, bicameralism was adopted even at the state level — with the caveat that it would be principally in large states. According to Art 171, there are restrictions on the size of the legislative council in states: it cannot be less than 40; it cannot exceed one-third of the total strength of the legislative assembly. Effectively, only states with an assembly size greater than 120 seats can have a legislative council. Today, we have 6 states where a legislative council is in existence: Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

While the West Bengal state government is legally within its rights to pass a resolution for the creation of a legislative council, it is perhaps time to review the functioning of the bicameral structure in our country — at the state and central levels. Have our upper houses truly served as seats of intellectual discussions and debates as was envisioned? Or have they simply become stages for showdown between the government and Opposition? Now that the ruling party has a majority in the Rajya Sabha as well at the Centre, we see a decline in the quality of debates on significant policies; bills are rammed through Parliament, by virtue of an overwhelming majority. Even the Standing Committees have been rarely utilized to have detailed discussions on policy matters. (Stats on number of bills referred to PSCs can be found on websites like PRS).

The government, the Opposition and the civil society would do well to reflect on the functioning of our legislative institutions, with the goal of ensuring effective functioning. After all, parties and individuals are transient. What remains is the legacy of institutional frameworks that we bequeath subsequent generations. It is with such a long view of posterity that we as a country need to function and ensure institutional propriety and strength.

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Akshay Simha

Akshay Simha

Life is a continuous discovery of the self. Interests, opinions, musings — you will find them all here. You can find my other pieces on simhaspeak.blogspot.com