The recently (with)held biennial elections to the Rajya Sabha from Jharkhand are likely to go down as a first in India’s electoral history for several reasons. For one, this is the first ever “countermanding” of elections to the upper house, with the Election Commission saying that it had reason to believe that the process had been so seriously vitiated that it had no other option but to recommend to the President that the entire process be annulled. Second, for the average Jharkhandi, the EC action proved to be that unique opportunity for refurbishing the state’s tarred political image, which had become a synonym for political corruption since the JMM bribery case. The unfortunate yet popular national impression of a ‘Jharkhandi’ was that of an easily ‘bikaau’ breed of homo sapiens, around which a thriving political market for RS seats had sprung up.
Between 2002 and 2012, there have been five rounds of elections to the RS, and there have been severe complaints about the use of money power—thailashahi, as this process has been popularly referred to—since 2008. That year, the late Ram Dayal Munda, noted scholar and activist from the state, led a popular protest march to the governor, raising critical issues about the use of money power by independent candidates, who were outsiders to the state. One such candidate, Parimal Nathwani, eventually won the elections only by a slender majority of second preference votes.
In 2010, a sting operation by former Tehelka journalist Aniruddha Bahal caught on camera four MLAs accepting money in lieu of voting for a particular candidate in the RS elections. One candidate who attracted unusual attention this time was K.D. Singh—an outsider to the state who contested as a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha candidate, and gathered more than double the number of first preference votes than the party’s. Soon after the elections, he switched over to the Trinamool Congress! A regional party was thus robbed of its sole representation in the upper house, and this type of defection can’t be prevented even under the anti-defection law.
By the time of this year’s election, the antipathy towards thailashahi and ‘outsider’ candidates was widespread enough for political leaders to articulate the mood in their statements. Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) president Babu Lal Marandi said that while the ordinary Jharkhandi was an honest and poor man, the RS election saga had done him disservice by portraying his state in a mercenary light. BJP’s Yashwant Sinha labelled such candidates ‘dhanpashus’—animals in their greed for money and their desire to become MPs by using money. The BJP, in fact, withdrew the candidature of Anshuman Mishra, strategically placed as an independent but widely expected to win with BJP support and luring independents. But while Mishra’s candidature was withdrawn, two other independent candidates—Pavan Dhoot and R.K. Agarwal—were still perceived to be sullying the electoral process. It was Marandi and fellow JVM MP Ajoy Kumar who now petitioned the EC; as did two other MPs—Gurudas Dasgupta and Sharad Yadav.
The turning point has been the cognisance by the EC that it has a constitutional obligation to uphold the sanctity of elections. Following the seizure of Rs 2.15 crore in cash in a car belonging to a candidate’s close relative in an early morning trap laid by the I-T department, the EC finally recommended the countermanding of the entire process. The EC’s action has been widely hailed within Jharkhand. The high court too upheld the EC move, calling the bluff of a so-called PIL, fining the petitioners, and directing the EC to go further and recommend a CBI probe.
The institutions have done their bit in putting in place some rules. But electoral reforms are the need of the hour. They include defining what nature of representation we need in the Rajya Sabha and what “free and fair” elections to this house should mean. To begin with, the rule of residence in a state needs to be reintroduced for RS elections. In Kuldeep Nayar vs Union of India (2006), the Supreme Court had observed that the domicile requirement was not fundamental to the structure of Indian “federalism”. However, the most serious complaint being voiced by Jharkhand parties is against “outsiders” who land up in the state as the polity is fragmented, with no clear majorities, and a very small number of MLAs are required to be elected under the single transferable vote system. Second, EC vigilance on the use of money power apart, if political parties kept a check on their MLAs, issuing whips even for signing nomination papers and for second preference votes, it may go a long way in regulating the political market for trading in futures.
(Manisha Priyam is a research scholar at LSE.)