Elections 2019: Even If Modi Wins Lok Sabha, A Rajya Sabha Seesaw Awaits
With the dates announced for India’s next general election, all eyes are on political parties’ Lok Sabha campaigns. Governance, of course, is not limited to the winner of the Lok Sabha. Whoever wins the election will have to deal with a hung chamber in the Rajya Sabha. Over the next two years the Bharatiya Janata Party will initially lose a bit of ground in the Rajya Sabha, then begin to recover and increase its seat total. This evolution will impact India’s legislative process.
When Narendra Modi won the Lok Sabha polls five years ago with a single-party majority, critics were quick to point out that the BJP’s relatively limited seat tally in the Rajya Sabha would limit the Prime Minister’s ability to move forward with critical legislation. The party’s supporters, anticipating continued electoral dominance in the state elections that followed the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, expected BJP’s strength in the Rajya Sabha to rise quickly.
Some even predicted a Rajya Sabha majority for the BJP at some point during Modi’s five-year term. But numbers in the upper house of India’s Parliament shift slowly.
Modi’s Rajya Sabha Legislative Record
In May 2014, BJP held 43 of the 243 seats in the Rajya Sabha. As upper house members are indirectly elected by state legislatures, BJP’s strong showing in the 2014 Lok Sabha election had no bearing on the Rajya Sabha. But it did lead political analysts to expect that the BJP would replicate these national results during subsequent assembly elections in many states. This, in turn, would help the party elect more members into the Rajya Sabha.
By and large, the BJP has done well in state elections over the last five years. Despite losing three states in late-2018, the BJP has chief ministers in twelve states – up from five states in May 2014. The biggest gains for the BJP were in the first three years of Modi’s tenure, from Maharashtra in October 2014 to Uttar Pradesh in March 2017. In 2018, the party also increased its seat total in Karnataka, although it was not able to form the government.
On the legislative front, despite holding relatively few seats in the Rajya Sabha, the Modi government was able to carry out a solid reform agenda.
Also over these five years, the Indian National Congress chose to support several key bills in the Rajya Sabha. These include the constitutional amendment to create a national Goods and Services Tax; the Insurance Act amendments; the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code; and the Coal Mines Act. The Congress did block other legislation in areas such as land reforms and labour deregulation.
How The Numbers Are Likely to Change
Heading into the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP has 73 out of 244 members in the Rajya Sabha – with 30 percent of the total strength of the body. Even with its stronger partners in the National Democratic Alliance coalition, the BJP remains well short of a majority. The Janata Dal (United) holds six seats, the Shiv Sena three, and the Shiromani Akali Dal has another three. Together with the BJP’s seats, these parties account for only 35 percent of the Rajya Sabha’s strength.
85 Rajya Sabha seats will be up for election within the next two years.
It is likely that BJP’s Rajya Sabha seat tally is likely to decline through April 2020.
As noted earlier, the party suffered electoral losses in key states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. The BJP has six Rajya Sabha members who go up for re-election in these states, so these are at-risk. Some could shift to the Congress, which won all three states in late-2018. So even if Modi wins the Lok Sabha election, he will initially lose legislative strength in the upper house of Parliament.
The BJP’s fortunes in the Rajya Sabha should begin to strengthen starting next summer.
- In June 2020, four Rajya Sabha seats are up for election in Karnataka, where the BJP strengthened its hand in the 2018 assembly election.
- In November 2020, ten Rajya Sabha seats are up for election in Uttar Pradesh, of which BJP holds only one.
The BJP’s stunning 2017 success in Uttar Pradesh, in which it won 77 percent of the state assembly seats, means that it will pick up most of the seats up for election late next year.
By the end of 2020, the BJP is likely to improve its Rajya Sabha strength by around eight seats.
The variables to these calculations are the state elections that will take place simultaneous to the national election, or in the following months.
- Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, and Mizoram will hold state elections alongside the national election.
- Haryana, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra will hold elections later this year.
- Delhi will have an election in early-2020, though it does not have any Rajya Sabha seats up for election in the coming 18 months.
- Bihar will hold its state election towards the end of 2020.
- An election in Jammu & Kashmir could also take place during this window.
Changes in the political makeup of these states will impact subsequent elections for Rajya Sabha members. That said, only 13 of the 85 members up for election in the coming two years are from these states, so the impact will be limited.
A great deal of India’s important economic reform agenda does not require legislation. Steps like consolidating the number of GST rates, liberalising most foreign investment restrictions, reducing burdensome business licenses can all be done irrespective of the strength of the treasury benches of Parliament. But some crucial measures like land reform, labor regulation relaxation, and tax code changes do require legislation. Irrespective of how voters choose the Lok Sabha in the spring, the next government will have to reach across the aisle to opposition parties to win support to pursue a legislative agenda.
Richard Rossow is the Wadhwani Chair in U.S. India Policy Studies at The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.