Rajya Sabha Projections Show Modi’s Lack of Majority Will Persist

By Sidhanta Mehra —

The Parliament of India, including the Rajya Sabha. Source: Deepak Gupta's flickr photostream.

The Parliament of India, including the Rajya Sabha in Delhi, India. Source: Deepak Gupta’s flickr photostream.

The passage of the Good and Services Tax (GST) Amendment is a landmark success for the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, showing that the Indian government can rally multiparty support to pass important legislation despite its lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament). Although the outcome was successful this time, the process was long and required a huge investment of political capital. A more robust presence in the Rajya Sabha would help the Modi government push through difficult legislation. Unfortunately for Modi, a closer examination of Rajya Sabha elections over the next two years shows that it will be impossible for his party to gain control of the Rajya Sabha before the 2019 general elections.

Unlike members of the lower house, who are directly elected by residents of their constituencies in a first-past-the-post system, Rajya Sabha members are elected by the members of the legislative assemblies for the states they represent. The constitution dictates that these elections use a highly complex system known as single transferable vote. In practice, however, elections almost universally follow a simple rule: the proportion of new members a party sends to the Rajya Sabha is roughly similar to the proportion of seats it holds in the legislative assembly. Thus if three Rajya Sabha seats become vacant, and party X has two-thirds of seats in the legislative assembly, then it will be able to send two new Rajya Sabha members, while the opposition will send one. (Although results are not always so predictable.)

The Rajya Sabha has 245 members, 12 of them nominated by the president and the rest elected. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) currently has 53 members, and members of the BJP’s coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), hold a further 18 seats. The coalition led by the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, has 66. The remaining 96 seats are held by independent regional parties; their willingness to vote with the BJP depends on the issue and the incentives offered. In order to command a reliable majority, Modi needs the BJP and its allies to pick up at least 72 seats. This will be extremely difficult as BJP only controls 9 of 29 states in the country, with a majority still in the hands of regional parties.

Over the next two years 78 seats in the Rajya Sabha will come up for election, but many of those retiring are already NDA representatives, limiting the opportunity to make net gains. When one also takes into account that a large number of seats will come vacant in states where the NDA has limited presence, the BJP and its allies in the NDA can only expect to gain 3-16 seats. This will increase the NDA’s number of seats to at most 98, still far short of a majority.

In 2017, 10 Rajya Sabha seats are expected to open up from three states: Gujarat, Goa and West Bengal. The first state is already a BJP stronghold, and thus its Rajya Sabha delegation is already majority-BJP. Unless the BJP takes control of more than 75 percent of the Gujarat legislative assembly in the upcoming elections, at best it can only hope to retain the two BJP seats that are set to come vacant. In Goa, however, where the BJP currently holds a majority in the assembly and expects to do well in upcoming elections, it should flip the sole Rajya Sabha seat from the Congress. The BJP has a minimal presence in West Bengal and cannot expect to gain (or lose) any seats there.

Figure 1: 2017 Rajya Sabha openings
State Seats Vacant Party Distribution Likely NDA Net Gain
Goa 1 1 INC 1
Gujarat 3 2 BJP 1 INC 0
West Bengal 6 4 AITC 1 CPI(M) 1 INC 0

The BJP will have a better chance of adding members to the Rajya Sabha in 2018, however, when a total of 68 seats will be up for elections. Four of these will be nominated by the president, who by that time may be a BJP ally. (This does not count nominated members towards the NDA’s majority due to the unreliability of nominated members, many of whom rarely appear in Parliament to vote.) The remaining 64 members will be selected by 19 state legislatures. The biggest question mark is Uttar Pradesh, which will go to the polls in spring 2017, meaning that a new assembly will be able to select 10 Rajya Sabha members. It is possible, if unlikely, that the BJP could repeat its performance in 2014, when it won 71 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats. A similar ratio in the new legislative assembly would entitle it to 9 Rajya Sabha seats. Beyond Uttar Pradesh, the NDA can expect to pick up a couple of seats each in Jharkhand, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, but these gains could be offset by losses elsewhere (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2: 2018 Rajya Sabha openings
State Seats Vacant Current Distribution Likely NDA Net Gain
Andhra Pradesh 3 2 INC 1 TDP 1
Bihar 6 4 JD(U) 2 BJP 0 to -1
Chhattisgarh 1 1 BJP 0*
Delhi 3 3 INC 0
Gujarat 4 4 BJP -1
Haryana 1 1 INC 1
Himachal Pradesh 1 1 BJP 0 to -1†
Jharkhand 2 1 INC 1 JMM 2 to 1
Karnataka 4 1 IND 1 INC 2 BJP -1
Kerala 3 1 INC 1 CPI(M) 1 KC(M) 0
Madhya Pradesh 5 4 BJP 1 INC 0*
Maharashtra 6 2 NCP 1 SS 2 INC 1 BJP 2
Odisha 2 1 IND 1 BJD 0
Rajasthan 3 2 INC 1 BJP 2
Sikkim 1 1 SDF 0*
Telangana 3 2 INC 1 TDP 0 to -1
Uttar Pradesh 10 6 SP 2 BSP 1 BJP 1 INC 9 to 0
Uttarakhand 1 1 INC 1‡
West Bengal 5 4 AITC 1 CPI(M) 0
Total 3 to 16

*State will hold elections in 2018, but not until after the Rajya Sabha seats are re-filled.

†Himachal Pradesh will have legislative assembly elections in 2017; the INC currently controls the assembly but the results are difficult to predict.

‡Uttarakhand will have legislative assembly elections in 2017; the BJP seems well-positioned to take control of the legislative assembly.

Through the general election of 2019, the Modi administration will have to continue to rely on its allies and pull its political weight to continue to push its legislative agenda through the Rajya Sabha. Even in the best case scenario, with a showing of 98 representatives, the NDA will still be unable to control the upper house of Parliament.

Mr. Sidhanta Mehra is a program manager & research associate with the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at CSIS.


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