It’s expected to become the latest flashpoint between Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi. On 6 July, the Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal Assembly passed a resolution with more than two-thirds majority seeking the revival of the Vidhan Parishad (Legislative Council) in Bengal.
But whether Mamata’s wish is fulfilled will depend on Parliament – and ironically enough, the BJP. And hence, the incoming flashpoint.
Over the course of this article, IndiaToday.in decodes the business of Legislative Councils in states, why Bengal suddenly wants to get its upper house back 52 years after it abolished it, and why Mamata Banerjee is actually far from the only politician promising a revival of their state’s Vidhan Parishad.
But first, what is a Vidhan Parishad?
The Vidhan Parishad is a state’s Legislative Council.
Just like the presence of both a Lok Sabha and a Rajya Sabha makes India a bicameral legislature (a legislature with two chambers), certain states too have two Houses – a Legislative Assembly (Vidhan Sabha) and a Legislative Council (Vidhan Parishad).
How are the members of a Legislative Council chosen?
The members of a Vidhan Parishad or Legislative Council are elected or nominated by the MLAs of that state’s Vidhan Sabha or Legislative Assembly.
The size of the upper house cannot be more than one-third of the state Assembly, or less than 40.
Just like the members of the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of Parliament), the members of the Legislative Councils also have a six-year term. And like in the Rajya Sabha, one-third of the members of the Council retire every two years.
Which states currently have a Legislative Council?
As of now, six states across the country have a functioning Legislative Council — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka.
Kashmir had one too, until the state was bifurcated into the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, in 2019.
What is the history of the Legislative Council? Since when do states have one?
The system of the Legislative Councils began during British rule. The Government of India Act of 1935 had set up bicameral legislatures in Indian provinces. And it was under this law that Bengal got a Legislative Council as far back as 1937.
But during the Constituent Assembly debates, there was a lot of back-and-forth on the issue of whether to keep an upper house in states.
Some members argued that the Legislative Council would act as a check on hasty legislation and bring diverse voices into the legislature. But others countered that having another set of legislators per state would only add significantly to the expenditures of the state. Another set of salaries, another set of allowances, and the cost of running another House altogether.
Professor K T Shah, a member of the Constituent Assembly, had opposed the move vociferously, “They (the second chambers) only aid party bosses to distribute more patronage, and only help in obstructing or delaying the necessary legislation which the people have given their votes for. Those who like to defend the Second Chamber are, more often than not, champions of vested interests, which find a place in these bodies and as such find an occasion rather to defend their own special, sectarian or class interests than to help the popular cause.”
Lakshmi Narayan Sahu, a member from Orissa, had countered, “My submission is that there should be at least this provision, that there can be a Second Chamber if it is demanded by the will of the people. It would then be possible for us to decide whether we need a second Chamber or not.”
What was the eventual outcome of the Constituent Assembly debate?
The makers of the Constitution provided that initially, the states of Bihar, Bombay, Madras, Punjab, the United Provinces and West Bengal would have a Legislative Council. States were given the option of abolishing an existing second chamber or seeking to set up a new one by passing a resolution in their Legislative Assembly.
Under Article 169 of the Constitution, a state’s Legislative Assembly can move to create or abolish its Legislative Council. A resolution has to be passed by a two-thirds majority in the Assembly. Then, a Bill to this effect has to be passed by Parliament. Both houses of Parliament will have to ratify it by a simple majority.
The Constitution also gave the Legislative Assembly (elected directly by the people) the power to overrule the Legislative Council (elected indirectly) if there was a disagreement between them on a law.
Why did Bengal do away with its upper house in 1969?
In 1967, a United Front coalition ousted the Congress from power in Bengal. But in less than nine months, the government had fallen and a Congress-backed chief minister soon held the reins. But even as the Speaker of the Assembly called the dismissal of the United Front government by the Governor unconstitutional, the Congress-heavy Legislative Council passed a resolution expressing confidence in the new government.
In 1969, after the next Assembly elections in Bengal, the United Front stormed back to power with more than a two-thirds majority and soon after, it passed a resolution for the abolition of the Legislative Council altogether. Months later, Parliament acquiesced and the West Bengal Legislative Council was abolished.
Why does Mamata want Bengal’s upper house back now?
According to the rulebook, Mamata has six months since the election in which she can get elected to the Assembly in order to continue as chief minister.
The reasons being attributed to Mamata Banerjee’s push for a revival of the upper house in Bengal are many. But at the top of that list is the controversial question of whether she can continue to be in the CM’s chair, given that she lost her own seat in the recently concluded Assembly election and that it is still unclear how soon a bypoll will be conducted by the EC, especially given the ongoing Covid crisis.
On 5 May, three days after the Bengal election results, the Election Commission had announced that it was deferring the bypolls to 3 Lok Sabha and 8 Assembly seats due to the Covid-19 situation.
In Uttarakhand, for example, BJP’s Tirath Singh Rawat faced a similar situation as Mamata and eventually resigned as chief minister just days ago.
According to the rulebook, Mamata has six months since the election in which she can get elected to the Assembly in order to continue as chief minister. Having an upper house will help Bengal avoid such a crisis (both now as well as in future) because members indirectly elected to a Legislative Council can serve in the Cabinet of a state.
The BJP has already opposed the move to revive Bengal’s Legislative Council and called it “backdoor politics” to help party leaders get elected as lawmakers despite having lost the assembly polls.
Political analyst Suman Bhattacharya lists another admitted advantage of having an upper house, “If you look for the right kind of people, the right kind of intelligentsia to be part of your government, like academics or doctors in the cabinet, how will you get them? They will not (necessarily) be able to contest direct election. To get them in your cabinet, you need an upper house.”
But BJP legislators have countered that it would be an unnecessary financial drain on the state’s resources. The TMC too has hit back by pointing out that Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Bihar are examples of three states which have an upper house despite the BJP currently being in power there.
Is Bengal the only state or TMC the only party demanding a revival of the Legislative Council?
Far from it.
Rajasthan: On 7 July, Rajasthan’s council of ministers decided it would renew the state’s demand to the Centre to constitute the upper house. The state Assembly had already passed a resolution to this effect in 2012. The Bill to ratify Rajasthan’s demand is still pending in the Rajya Sabha.
Tamil Nadu: Just this year, ahead of the Tamil Nadu Assembly election, the DMK promised in its manifesto that it would set up the upper house in the state. The AIADMK-led government in 1986 had abolished Tamil Nadu’s Legislative Council. While the DMK is in favour of bringing back the Council, the AIADMK has traditionally opposed the move.
Madhya Pradesh: In the run up to the 2018 Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress promised in its manifesto that it would introduce the Legislative Council in the state. But even as the Kamal Nath-led government said they were working towards it in 2019, the BJP opposed it strongly.
Assam: The Assam Assembly passed a resolution in 2010 to set up the second chamber in the state. Their demand, too, is in limbo in the Rajya Sabha.
The setting up of an upper house does have distinct pros and cons, but given that the process requires the approval of the state Assembly as well as both Houses of Parliament, it’s no surprise that the demands by so many states have been languishing without fruition.
And while the war of words between the TMC and the BJP might continue over the issue in Bengal, this impasse is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.