Modi’s Rajya Sabha Conundrum

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), achieved a major success last week in the Rajya Sabha, passing the long-pending Insurance Bill, raising the cap on foreign direct investment (FDI) in the sector to 49 percent. But the government also suffered an embarrassment, when a united opposition forced an amendment to the largely ceremonial motion of thanks on the President's address, which is typically passed unanimously.

Though this setback was only symbolic, it underlines the challenges the Modi government will face in the Rajya Sabha, or upper house, as it enacts its growth agenda. The NDA government, which holds a majority in the Lok Sabha, or lower house, after its landmark victory in last year’s national election, is still at a disadvantage in the upper house. This poses a significant problem as approval from both houses is necessary to enact many of the key reforms on the NDA government’s agenda. 

The recent string of NDA electoral victories in Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir (despite the unexpected setback in Delhi) have sparked hopes that the Modi government may be able to achieve a majority in the upper house. The state elections over the next three years will be critical to determining the composition of the Rajya Sabha, and in turn the ease with which the NDA can expect to enact legislation. 

How do the numbers add up now?

The NDA holds 60 seats currently in the 245 member upper house. Based on the existing electoral equations, the parties that stand in opposition to the government’s agenda have at least 132 MPs, while the other 41 remain swing votes. There are also 12 nominated members of the Rajya Sabha, who are chosen by the President of India, rather than elected. The current nominated members were chosen during the Manmohan Singh government and are likely to side with the opposition rather than the ruling NDA. Securing the simple majority of 123 votes needed to obtain the approval for legislation will be difficult for the NDA in the current configuration. 

The Effect of State Elections

Members of the Rajya Sabha are elected by state legislatures, with each state allocated a certain number of seats. The voting is based on proportional representation, which typically means that the party in power in the state is able to send more members to the Rajya Sabha. Members of the Rajya Sabha are elected for a term of six years, and one third of the members retire every two years. 

Though only ten Rajya Sabha seats will be up for election in 2015, a major change can be expected in 2016 when 76 seats will be up for election. State elections have already changed the electoral math for the Rajya Sabha. The BJP is assured of adding six seats – bringing its total to 51 – due to its strong showing in recent state elections. NDA member Telugu Desam Party is expected to add seats as well with its recent victory in the Andhra Pradesh state elections. Simultaneously, Congress will go from 69 to 54 seats, due to losses in recent state elections. 

Bihar will be the last state to go to the polls this year, in December, followed by five states – Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puducherry – in April 2016. These states contribute 16 of the 76 Rajya Sabha vacancies to be filled in 2016, meaning these elections will have a significant impact on the composition of the upper house. 

If the BJP does well in Bihar and West Bengal, and is able to make some inroads in Kerala and Tamil Nadu (where it’s currently weak), then the party could pick up enough seats to become the single largest party in the Rajya Sabha by 2016, though it would still be short of a simple majority.
The NDA government’s prospects of obtaining a majority in the Rajya Sabha rest on winning the 2017 elections in Uttar Pradesh, a state where the BJP made a remarkable turnaround and won 72 out of 80 seats in the national lower house elections last year. Uttar Pradesh, which sends the highest number of members to both the houses of parliament, will account for ten of the 68 Rajya Sabha vacancies up for election in 2018. Another ten seats will be contributed by Bihar and West Bengal. If the BJP does well in these state elections, it can hope to further increase its number of seats. 

In total, there are 167 Rajya Sabha seats up for election before 2019. Sixty eight of these will be from states where state level elections are due and new state legislatures will be voting. Unless the BJP wins the electoral battles coming up in the states over the next three years, it will not be able to achieve a majority in the Rajya Sabha and will have to continue to depend on the support of non-NDA parties such as the Biju Janata Dal, the AIADMK and the NCP to pass bills. Though this may become easier as Congress’ strength continues to decline, it will still prove a legislative challenge for the NDA. 

Outlook for Reform Agenda

Passing comprehensive reforms will be a challenge for the NDA until the state elections reconfigure the make-up of the Rajya Sabha. The government is likely to focus on mobilizing support on an ad hoc basis, giving it the flexibility to assemble winning coalitions by reaching out to individual parties. For example, while the Insurance Laws Amendment Bill was passed with the help of the Congress, the government managed to win the support of a group of regional parties for the Mines and Minerals Bill with the Congress and the Left voting against. 

The NDA government also has the option of calling a joint session of Parliament, if it is unable to resolve a deadlock in the upper house. Though the NDA government has indicated that it will exercise this option if the opposition blocks key legislation in the Rajya Sabha, previous governments have rarely done so. There are also limitations; according to Article 108, a joint sitting of both Houses can only be called if a bill has been passed by one House and rejected by the other, if the two Houses have disagreed on the amendments to be made in the bill, or if more than six months have elapsed after a bill is passed by one House but is not passed by the other. In addition, in some cases like the Land Acquisition Bill, where the BJP does not have the support of its allies, it might be difficult for the government to pass legislation even in a joint session.

However, the outlook for the government’s reform agenda of improving the ease of doing business to boost growth and shoring up the economy still remains positive. Many reforms the government plans to undertake, like the changes already made in the areas of labor reform, FDI liberalizations in defense and railways, do not require legislative approval because they fall within the executive powers of the government. The NDA government will increasingly rely on such decisions to move forward its agenda as it waits for state elections to create a more favorable context in the Rajya Sabha.