For the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, the forthcoming assembly election in Bihar is not just a contest to bag the second most populous state in the country. It is also a battle to gain control of the Rajya Sabha, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies stand hopelessly outnumbered by the Opposition. There is a sense of urgency: even before Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (U) and Laloo Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) could reach a seat-sharing arrangement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hit the campaign trail for the BJP, addressing rallies in his pugnacious showman style. The BJP knows well that to change the arithmetic in the Upper House, it needs to have as many states in the bag as possible, for it is the assemblies that elect representatives to the Rajya Sabha.
For the NDA, the importance of the Bihar election—and elections in other states over this year and the next—cannot be overstated. Lacking numbers in the Rajya Sabha, the NDA has been unable to implement reforms it keenly pushed. Its much-vaunted, business-friendly Goods and Service Tax Bill has been stuck for over a year. During the budget session, the Congress and its allies were able to force the government to refer the bill to a select committee of the Rajya Sabha before it could be put to the vote.
The Land Acquisition Bill, another controversial legislation, again much awaited by industry, too ran into a wall in the Rajya Sabha, before public sentiment forced an embarrassed government to withdraw it. An insurance bill, too, had initially been stalled in the Upper House, but the government finally managed to have it passed during the budget session, after the Congress staged a walkout, giving the government the required numbers.
|“Modi has shown prejudice against Bihar. The BJP thought the JD(U) and RJD are fighting, but they have great support.” Pavan Varma, Advisor to Bihar CM Nitish Kumar||“If the BJP wins in Bihar, that will set the momentum in its favour. Some Congress allies may then tilt towards the BJP.” Ashis Nandy, Social & political commentator||“The BJP is unlikely to end up as the single largest party in the Rajya Sabha. However, it will show slight upward movement.” Sudhakar Reddy, General secretary, CPI|
In this confrontation, legislators and political parties as groups have earned a bad name. During the just ended monsoon session, productivity in the Rajya Sabha was as low as nine per cent. It functioned only for one per cent of the scheduled Question Hour time. This has driven home to the ruling party the importance of state elections. Nineteen states will go to the polls between now and 2018, starting with Bihar. Around 75 seats will fall vacant in the Upper House in 2016, followed by 10 in 2017 and 69 in 2018. These include seats of nominated members. Calculations based on a breakdown of assembly seats offer a glimpse of how the Rajya Sabha will appear between now and 2018:
- The composition of the 243-strong newly-elected assembly in Bihar will hold the key to five seats that will fall vacant in 2016. They are currently held by the JD(U). The JD(U) and the RJD are pitted against the BJP in what looks like a tightly contested election. If the BJP polls well, it is likely to gain three seats in the Rajya Sabha, by broad estimates.
- In Maharashtra, six seats will fall vacant in the Rajya Sabha in 2016. The NDA is at an advantage because it is in power in the state and assembly elections are due only in 2019. Of the six, the ncp and the Congress have two each, the BJP and the Shiv Sena one each. In all possibility, the BJP may gain three more seats.
- In Madhya Pradesh, of the three seats that will fall vacant, two are held by the BJP, one by the Congress. Although the BJP is in power in the state, the fate of the third seat is still unclear. The assembly goes to the polls only in 2019, and it depends on how chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan weathers the Vyapam and dmat controversies.
- Rajasthan goes to the polls in 2019. Of the four Rajya Sabha seats that will fall vacant next year, the BJP is likely to gain three as it is in power in the state.
- In Tamil Nadu, where six seats will fall vacant in 2016, the BJP will most likely draw a blank. It can at best hope for issue-based support from the AIADMK in the Rajya Sabha. Modi’s equation with chief minister Jayalalithaa will be on test.
- In Uttar Pradesh, a silver lining for the BJP is unlikely in the 11 seats that will fall vacant in 2016. The BJP holds only one of them. In all likelihood, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party will share the spoils, with the Congress getting the crumbs. Uttar Pradesh next has the assembly polls in 2017.
- In Punjab, seven Rajya Sabha seats will fall vacant in 2016; the BJP has only one. Being in power and given that assembly polls are due in 2017, it might get a chance to improve its position.
- West Bengal goes to the polls in 2016, and the BJP’s fate will depend on whether the Rajya Sabha elections will take place before the assembly elections or vice versa. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee definitely wouldn’t like to risk her Muslim vote bank by going soft on the BJP before the assembly polls. However, observers believe that the BJP might spring a surprise in the state assembly polls.
- It is yet to be seen if the BJP will be able to make a break in Assam and capture at least one of the two Rajya Sabha seats that will fall vacant next April. They are now held by the Congress. The Assam assembly term ends in June.
- In Andhra Pradesh, if ally Chandrababu Naidu gives one seat to the BJP in the Rajya Sabha, he will seek something in return like a bigger package for the state. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti is unlikely to oblige, since its demand for a high court hasn’t found favour with the NDA.
Given such a scenario, the BJP is likely to gain some seats in 2016 and improve its position in the Rajya Sabha while the Congress will lose marginally. But the NDA is unlikely to achieve a majority in the Rajya Sabha in 2016—that is likely to remain a pipe-dream. Observers say that the best case scenario will see the BJP gaining a maximum of 20 more seats by 2016, which will bring its tally to 68 in the Rajya Sabha. It could add another six in 2017 and if the RSS cadres get their act together, there can be substantial gains for the BJP in the 2018 biennial elections to the Rajya Sabha.
However, the BJP on its own will still not be able to manage 100 seats. Along with allies, the NDA may cobble together a simple majority by 2018-end, but will still find it difficult to pass important constitutional amendment bills, for which a two-thirds majority is needed in the house. The Rajya Sabha term of seven of its cabinet ministers, including Niramala Sitharaman, Suresh Prabhu, Venkaiah Naidu, Piyush Goyal, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, are also coming to an end in 2016 while Smriti Irani will cease to be a member of the Upper House in 2017. They will all have to be accommodated again. The battle for the Rajya Sabha has begun, starting with Bihar.