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The Rajya Sabha poll bazaar

  By Vijay Darda | 14-06-2016

One of the most enchanting features of our democracy is the bicameral legislature that we have in the Parliament. The Lok Sabha represents the will of the people as its members are directly elected through universal adult franchise. The Rajya Sabha is an indirectly elected House, as its members are elected on the basis of the votes cast by the members of the respective state legislatures. It is also called the Council of States, as it is constituted on the basis of the mandate the members get from the state assemblies. Unlike the Lok Sabha that can be dissolved, the Rajya Sabha lives in perpetuity, and its members are elected every two years for a six-year term. Thus, one third of the members retire every two years after completing their six-year term and new members come in.

Last week, the Rajya Sabha biennial polls were held for 57 seats. As it transpired there was no need for voting to fill up 30 seats, as the parties had put candidates matching their respective strengths in the various state assemblies, and these members were elected unopposed. But for the remaining 27 seats, polling had been necessitated as the number of candidates exceeded the number of seats in respective states, and to put it mildly we can say that the major political parties were trying their luck with the electorate.

So, we witnessed a situation in Uttar Pradesh where for the 11 seats there were 12 candidates including the wild card entry Preeti Mahapatra, a well known industrialist with connection in high places. Her entry into the fray posed a challenge to the Congress candidate, the senior lawyer and former Union minister Kapil Sibal, who was short of a few votes. Likewise in Haryana, the BJP fielded the business magnate Subhash Chandra as its second candidate in the hope that he would use their surplus votes to get past the challenge posed by the senior lawyer R K Anand who was the joint candidate of the two principal opposition parties- the Indian National Lok Dal and the Congress.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP fielded Vinod Gontia as its third candidate hoping to rock senior lawyer Vivek Tankha’s boat though he had a clear lead for the third seat. Similarly, in Jharkhand, the BJP fielded another businessman Mahesh Poddar for the second seat in the hope of stopping the opposing candidate Basanth Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha supported by the Congress. Not to be left behind in this game of trying one’s luck the Congress pushed its third candidate, a retired IPS officer Ramamurthi in the state of Karnataka, against a businessman B M Farooq fielded by the former prime minister H D Deve Gowda’s party the JD(S).

It is important to underline that these senior lawyers, rich businessmen are not short of any resource and can marshal almost anything in their quest for a seat in the Rajya Sabha. For instance in the case of Subhash Chandra, this is not the first time that he made an attempt to get into the House of elders. One such attempt in the 1990s had come unstuck when a senior BJP leader asked him not to press for his candidature. But this time, the Haryana BJP government was fully supportive of his long standing ambition. To say that money power plays a significant role in deciding the fate of these ‘extra candidates’ is to make an understatement of the century. In fact, ab initio these candidates enter the fray because it is believed that they have enough clout to trade favours, whether in cash or kind.

When the results came out the moneybags did not surprise us. Chandra won after 14 Congress votes were disallowed for using ‘wrong ink’ (some cause for rejecting the votes), Poddar got through with 0.99 votes as two Congress voters were not allowed to participate in the election, but neither Preeti Mahapatra nor Vinod Gontia could hold their own against senior lawyers Kapil Sibal and Vivek Tankha, who was additionally fired by the election management skills of the veteran Congress leader Kamal Nath, who has won nine Lok Sabha elections from his Chhindwara pocket borough. But the surprise part was that a retired IPS officer Ramamurthi also managed to lure away eight JD(S) MLAs in a state that has reputation of sending moneybags like Vijay Mallya to the House.

Obviously, both the BJP and the Congress strained every nerve to get an upper hand in the House of elders, but then the tally of seats at the end of the day shows that not much has changed when it comes to the complexion of the House. The BJP-NDA still remains far away from a majority in the House of 245 members, and it has just 74, up five. Numerically this may look more attractive than the 71 (down three) of the UPA, but when seen in the light of the fact that regional players have 89 seats, we know that the balance of power rests with the Samajwadi Party, the BSP, the JD(U)-RJD combine and they are all unprepared to do any business with the BJP for the moment. More over with 58 members of its own, the Congress still remains the largest single party in the house and will continue to remain influential.

To remedy this problem, the BJP with help of the Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan who has the right to certify any bill as ‘money bill’ (as these bills need not be passed by the Rajya Sabha) has tried to subvert the sanctity of the Rajya Sabha, and will no doubt continue to do so in future as well, but then constitutional reforms like the GST cannot be simply rushed through. These will be enacted only if the government of the day shows the patience and the courage to build bipartisan consensus with the entire opposition. The lesson is simple. In a democracy, you may convert elections into a bazaar-like trade off, but then you cannot still negate the essence of the basic checks and balances instituted by our founding fathers.

Before I conclude…

We all heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi make an excellent speech while delivering his address to a joint meeting of the US Congress. His commitment to democracy, and his reference to the Constitution as the ‘only holy book for his government’ also made us hold our heads high. But isn’t it time that he reins in the likes of Pahlaj Nihalani, and Sadhvi Prachi who seem to derail his agenda and dent his image. Can any modern nation accept the 89 cuts ordered by Nihalani in the film Udta Punjab, that has drug addiction in Punjab as its theme? Similarly, does this talk of a “Muslim Mukt Bharat” after a “Congress Mukt Bharat”, add to India’s image as a secular, tolerant country? Prime Minister Modi has promised us a “modern nation”.


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The Rajya Sabha poll bazaar


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