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The Upper House hurdle

Prime Minister elect Narendra Modi hasn’t put a foot wrong from the moment the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nominated him as its prime ministerial candidate in September last year.

Modi launched a highly successful whirlwind election campaign soon after and led his party to a majority in the Lok Sabha elections that India hadn’t seen since 1984. As Prime Minister elect, the 63-year-old neatly sewed it all up with a statesmanlike gesture of inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif along with other Saarc leaders to the swearing-in ceremony of his cabinet.

Modi commands a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha – widely perceived as the licence he needs to deliver on the promises he has made to the electorate. But there looms a big speed bump ahead. BJP, including the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) it leads, is woefully short of numbers in the Upper House.

This handicap could cause the Modi-led NDA much heartburn in getting key legislations enacted. Some observers of the Indian political scene have mooted the idea of the NDA government pushing for holding joint session of Parliament to get constitutional amendment bills enacted.

But Rajya Sabha secretariat sources say the proposal is unrealistic. Former Lok Sabha secretary general Subhash Kashyap also agrees. He says joint sessions cannot be the norm. “Joint sessions are indeed a way out for a party or alliance that has a majority in the Lok Sabha, while it is in minority in Rajya Sabha. But joint sessions are a rarity,” Kashyap says.

Joint sessions, where both Houses come together to pass a Bill, can take place only when one House has rejected a Bill that the other has passed. This has happened only thrice in the history of independent India, the last time during the previous NDA regime when it held a joint sitting of the two Houses to get the contentious Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act, or POTA, enacted in 2002.

Kashyap says the procedure for a joint session is long winded. “The Bill passed by one House and rejected by the other is then returned to the first House for necessary amendments suggested by the other House. It is then sent back to the other House, which may accept the amendments and pass the Bill or reject it. In the latter case, the government of the day can hold a joint session,” he says.

A Rajya Sabha secretariat source says the institution of the standing committees – where MPs from both Houses and all parties scrutinise Bills before being tabled in either of the two Houses – allows differences to be worked out in the committee itself. Therefore, disagreement on the floor of the House is rare. Bills on which there is little agreement at the standing committee stage are unlikely to be tabled in Parliament.

As things stand in the Rajya Sabha, BJP has 42 MPs in a house of 234, and 61 along with its NDA partners. The numbers are unlikely to fall in the favour of BJP anytime before early 2016. That is when the Rajya Sabha is next scheduled to hold its biennial elections. Nearly a third of Rajya Sabha’s 235 MPs (10 more are nominated by the President) are elected in biennial elections, the last of which took place earlier this year.

In the next few months, BJP could hope to shore up its numbers marginally with vacancies that have arisen after six Rajya Sabha MPs having been elected to the Lok Sabha. The MPs that will vacate their seats are Ramvilas Paswan (Lok Janshakti Party), Tariq Anwar (Nationalist Congress Party) and Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Ram Kripal Yadav, Faggan Singh Kulaste and Bhagat Singh Koshiyari (all from BJP).

But this will be far from sufficient. Of the 16 MPs that retire this year, 10 are from Uttar Pradesh and four from Karnataka. In neither of the two states does BJP command enough numbers in the state assemblies to ensure election of its candidates.

For BJP, the situation isn’t different from the last time a single party won a majority in the Lok Sabha. That was in 1984. The Rajiv Gandhi government then had, by the fag end of its term, lost enough state elections to become a minority in the Rajya Sabha. This caused the government some embarrassment during the days leading up to the 1989 general elections which it lost.

In 1989, a combined opposition in the Rajya Sabha blocked the efforts of the Rajiv Gandhi government to pass a constitutional amendment to confer constitutional status to panchayati raj institutions. The Bill could only be enacted two years later in 1991 when Congress returned to power.

The Modi-led NDA is likely to find itself in similarly irksome situations. It could even pick up a few of the tricks employed by the outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which also ran short of numbers in the Rajya Sabha.

Some of these manoeuvres were evident during the vote on the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail in end-2012. UPA was in a minority on the issue. The Trinamool Congress had walked out of the government as it opposed FDI in retail. Most parties, including BJP, wanted to thwart the move.

Samajwadi Party (SP) MPs, who claimed to be ideologically against the bill, walked out of the Rajya Sabha just as the Bill came up for a vote in December 2012. This reduced the effective strength of the House and enabled UPA to win the vote. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) also adopted the ploy more than once to bail the UPA out.

So, could the BJP hope for favours from regional parties such as All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazghagam (AIADMK), which has 10 MPs, Trinamool Congress (12 MPs) and Biju Janata Dal (6 MPs)? Some in BJP hope the promised “financial packages” for states like Odisha may persuade BJD chief Naveen Patnaik to ask his six MPs to vote with NDA on critical issues.

But party leaders concede that to expect either AIADMK or Trinamool to consistently vote with BJP in return for whatever “financial package” the Centre may dole out to these two states would be politically unrealistic. “It would be a game of quid pro quo,” an MP, who does not want to be named, says.

The only solution to BJP’s woes, say veteran parliamentarians, is to accept the pressures of coalition politics and have a good floor manager. For its not only crucial bills that would require shepherding but, equally, the day-to-day management.

Many in BJP, and all who have seen the functioning of the Rajya Sabha over the past five years when Arun Jaitley was the Leader of the Opposition in the House, are unanimous that it might prove a blessing in disguise for the Modi government that Jaitley lost his Lok Sabha elections. Jaitley is certain to succeed Manmohan Singh as the leader of the Upper House.

Jaitley’s appeal cuts across party lines. His political rivals swear by his understanding of law. “Many of us would turn to him to clarify a legal point or two before making our speeches,” a Rajya Sabha MP of a rival party says. They also credit him with great interpersonal skills.

But the party isn’t too willing to part with whatever game plan it has decided upon to tackle its Rajya Sabha headache. “We will decide on our strategy when we come to it. Currently, we are caught up with other more pressing engagements,” is all BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman is willing to say on the issue. The party is currently caught up with the task of cabinet formation, but Sitharaman’s statement also betrays a sense of uncertainty for what would be a dynamic process involving deft floor management and behind-the-scenes deal-making.

Whatever the strategy, BJP is faced with a challenge in the Rajya Sabha – at least until the first half of 2016. For whichever way one views the current numbers, they just don’t add up to a simple majority without BJP extending a hand out for allies. Not only would NDA need such regional parties as AIADMK, Trinamool and BJD, it would also need the help of non-UPA parties like BSP, Janata Dal (U), SP and Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK).

Nail-biting Rajya Sabha sessions are definitely in the offing.


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