India’s Road to Economic Reform: The Rajya Sabha

By Samir Nair

Parliament of India. Source: Lord of the Wings flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Parliament of India. Source: Lord of the Wings flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) historic election victory earlier in May, the party will still face difficulty in getting major legislation through parliament because of its relatively weak presence in the Rajya Sabha – it currently holds just 18 percent of seats in the upper chamber, which equates to 42 seats out of 243. Coalition allies hold another 13 seats. This poses a unique challenge to the government’s reform agenda, as we at the India Chair have emphasized in a recent report and video presentation. This weakness in the Rajya Sabha was on full display earlier this month as the government unsuccessfully tried to move legislation that would have increased the foreign direct investment (FDI) cap in the insurance sector.

So at what point during its term in office can the BJP realistically gain control of the Rajya Sabha? 2018 is likely the earliest the BJP and its allies can hope to exert control over the Rajya Sabha. First, one must keep in mind that members of the Rajya Sabha are elected by state legislatures for six-year terms. Looking at which of these members of parliament (MPs) are set to retire over the next five years and represent states that the BJP controls or might control in the near future could very well determine the government’s ability to carry out reforms at the Center.

In November of this year, the terms of ten Rajya Sabha MPs from Uttar Pradesh are expiring. The BJP is unlikely to pick up many of these seats because the Samajwadi Party – which controls the state’s legislative assembly – will likely fill them with its own members.

Next year, four Rajya Sabha seats from Jammu and Kashmir and three from Kerala will be vacated. Again, the BJP is unlikely to pick up any of these seats because its base of support in the most recent assembly elections held in these two states was limited.

The BJP could conceivably start to make some gains in the Rajya Sabha in 2016. There are 74 Rajya Sabha seats that will open up in 2016, more than in any other year between now and the time of the next election in 2019. Under an optimistic scenario, the BJP could pick up between 20-25 of these seats – mostly in Assam, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Jharkhand, and Maharashtra. The BJP is already in power in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. This scenario, therefore, is largely predicated on a strong showing by the BJP in upcoming state elections in Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Assam – states where the BJP did quite well during the most recent Lok Sabha polls.

In 2017, the BJP could pick up a couple of more Rajya Sabha seats – one in Goa and one in Gujarat. Of the ten Rajya Sabha seats opening up in 2017, six are in West Bengal, a state where the BJP has long struggled to make any inroads. Far more important in 2017 is the state assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and electorally crucial state. The BJP, for its part, saw tremendous success in Uttar Pradesh during the most recent national election, winning 71 out of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats.

2018 is another big year in the Rajya Sabha with 67 seats to be contested. The BJP could win another 20-30 seats in the upper house, picking up eight seats in Uttar Pradesh alone if it managed to reclaim the state’s government.

Taken together, the BJP’s seat total in the Rajya Sabha could come close to 100 by the end of 2018. If we include allies, whose total may rise to 24 seats in this period, it might finally have the parliamentary majority it needs to enact decisive economic reforms.

For the BJP to make significant gains in the Rajya Sabha, it must take control of at least six states holding elections over the next three years. Until this happens, the current government will face some limits on what it can do on the economic front. The danger is by the time the BJP and its allies secure control of the upper house of India’s parliament, the mood of the electorate could be very different from what it is today and the government’s mandate could be considerably weaker.

Mr. Samir Nair is program coordinator & research assistant with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.