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West Bengal set for a council’s counsel

The state government’s decision to set up an upper house is a strategic move made by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to augment her unfulfilled political and business interests.

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By Sujit Bhar

Amid the complete chaos that engulfed West Bengal’s political firmament during and after the assembly elections, came the announcement of the state cabinet approving the setting up of a Legislative Council, or an upper house of the state. As Bengal goes through the process, it will become the seventh Indian state to have an upper house. This enumeration is after the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir’s Legislative Council was abolished through the J&K Reorganisation Bill, 2019, which reduced the state to the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, respectively.

This was one of the promises made by the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee-led dispensation that has returned to power for the third time in-a-row. A Legislative Council, on the lines of the Rajya Sabha, is also called Vidhan Parishad and the states which have this bicameral system are: Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The Legislative Council, however, does not have powers on a par with the Rajya Sabha, though some of its activities are similar.

The Legislative Council is not a pre-requisite for a government in a state. In fact, its flip side is in the positioning of a concoction of unelected people in seemingly high positions of power—though, in reality, they can only add to the nuisance value in the passing of a bill—where they may or may not have anything of worth to offer for six long years. The retirement of members is staggered, with a third of the members retiring every two years. However, the primary reason for setting up this extra expenditure for the state exchequer is that Mamata had promised to accommodate those who could not get elected to the assembly, as well as leaders who were excluded from the party candidates’ list for the assembly elections.

This will include state finance minister Amit Mitra, who did not fight elections, or even Didi herself, who lost the Nandigram fight to her former party worker Subhendu Adhikari, who joined the BJP. In a late development, though, veteran TMC leader Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay resigned as MLA from the Bhawanipore assembly seat and Didi is now likely to contest that seat. Bhawanipore is where Didi lives and has been her pet constituency.

The process of creating a Vidhan Parishad is that the proposal must be approved by the state cabinet—which has been done—followed by that proposal being sent to the governor for his statutory approval (generally, this is a small matter of formality only), before it returns again to the assembly floor for the approval of the House. Just a majority is required (of course, with no less than two-thirds of the members of the assembly present and voting). The third part is the easy one. Trinamool Congress (TMC) has returned to power with 213 seats, two more than its last massive victory. The entire house has 294 seats, so the party can virtually barrel through with this, and if there is any doubt, a three-line whip will be sufficient. However, considering the confrontationist attitude adopted by Governor Jagdeep Dhankar, the second stage could be more difficult. When all formalities are completed, it will be a return to pre-1969 status for the state. That was when the United Front government abolished the then existing Legislative Council.

This move will, thus, allow Mamata to have a larger ministerial presence, without members being elected by the people. The process of getting a seat in the Upper House will be either elections by members of the already elected assembly, or even local bodies or a process of nomination by the governor. Technically, Mamata can have only a third of the strength of the lower house in the upper house, which boils down to 98.

There are political benefits. Legislative Council seats can be handed out to district head honchos who may have done commendable work during the elections, but did not get a ticket. Such frustrations often lead to disenchantment within the party fold. Not that Adhikari was a frustrated man, but such undue ambitions will be nipped in the bud.

The election process is a bit different. A third of the MLCs are elected by the state’s MLAs, while another third is elected by a special electorate comprising sitting members of local governments such as municipalities and district boards. Then there is 1/12th elected by an electorate of teachers and an­other 1/12th by registered graduates. The remaining members are appointed by the governor for “distinguished services in various fields”, such as literature, science, art, cooperative movement and social service.

The governor’s nominations apart, Mamata will have a clean hand in electing the rest of the members. That will allow her other options to ponder upon. The chief minister would love to hand over, as prize, many of these seats to eminent people (those the governor may not have been keen to nominate), businessmen and the like. It would be good if she manages to use this as not just as a political tool and a showpiece facility, but to seal long-term associations and friendships with leading business houses of the state. Apart from the extensive developmental issues that the state has to undertake following the Covid-19 pandemic devastation, there is this matter of rising political expenses that need to be addressed. This will also be a firewall in deterring the growing influence of the BJP—the primary opposition to the ruling party in the state now—which, despite defeat, has secured a phenomenal growth to 77 members from a paltry three. One of the BJP’s main election planks was development, and the Mamata dispensation cannot turn away from that any more.

Before delving deeper into what Mamata can achieve with the new Legislative Council, one needs to see the limitations of a Council. While, unlike the Rajya Sabha, the Legislative Council does not have any constitutional power to regulate and stop non-financial legislation, it can certainly delay the progress of a law enacted by MLAs. This could raise the coefficient of friction for TMC at the moment, though, again, the MLAs in the assembly can easily disregard suggestions/ amendments made by the Legislative Council. On the other hand, if and when, some day, the TMC moves to the opposition, this Legislative Council may be able to impede/delay legislations to gain time.

In dealing with this somewhat vexatious issue, one can refer back to what Andhra Pradesh is feeling about it. Early last year, the Andhra Pradesh assembly passed a resolution, demanding that the state’s Legislative Council be scrapped. This can be done by a parliamentary edict. Why is Andhra fed up with its Legislative Council? It was the very purpose for which it was probably erected—to place hurdles before the Legislative Assembly’s work. The assembly is dominated by YSRCP, but the TDP has the edge in the Council. Last year, the Legislative Council of that state referred two bills—this was about the creation of three state capitals—to a select committee.

The terms of the committee’s report allow the committee to take three months or even more to table the report. That is a brake on the progress of the project. The Legislative Council can reject that report, too, and the assembly can pass it all over again, whence it would be deemed as passed, but the Legislative Council as an irritant will be around. Of course, Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy does not need this. This harassment, so to say, has been referred to—by no less than former Union finance minister, the Late Arun Jaitley—as the “tyranny of the unelected”.

Technically, draconian laws, if they are to be passed by a ruling dispensation, will be passed, whether the Legislative Council agrees or not. In the meantime, the upkeep of the Legislative Council through salaries and allowances for members and their staff would remain a burden.

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It would be of immediate importance for Mamata to make use of all the “benefits” that a Legislative Council can offer. If she has chosen to spend more money despite the financially unstable situation of the state, she must be having an ace up her sleeve. Looking at it from a strategic point of view, placing professionals in the Legislative Council will mean free (salary notwithstanding) advice for completely new development schemes from people who the state would have otherwise not been able to pay for. In the long run, this may turn out to have been a cheaper option.

Last but not the least, there will be goodwill. If a few good vibes and good wishes come by in dire times, will those be not welcome?

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