An ominous prelude for India’s democratic health
The Rajya Sabha (RS) election often slips below the radar for many Indians. Of the 57 open RS seats in this round of elections, 41 were filled unopposed. RS members are elected on the basis of votes from Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) rather than a direct vote from Indian citizens. It seems confusing, then, that the competition between political parties turned so ugly for just four competitive RS seats.
Parties locked their MLAs into resorts to prevent them from defecting to another party, and there was an accusation that two lawmakers — who were also senior ministers — from Maharashtra were denied bail (and thus the right to vote) in the RS election with the aim of altering the outcome for Maharashtra’s RS seats. The importance of the election was in the fact that an otherwise politically dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not control a majority of seats in the RS. And, it is thus one of the main formal political institutions that works against the political consolidation and centralisation of the BJP.
Because RS members are not directly voted to the office by citizens, there is a view that somehow the decisions of the Upper House have less democratic legitimacy. And yet, a mathematical quirk often means that the composition of the RS mirrors the preferences of the Indian population more closely. If we consider the most recent Lok Sabha (LS) election, we see that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the ruling BJP, received approximately 45% of the vote share, but won 353 (65%) of the 542 seats that went to the polls in 2019. By contrast, of the 233 non-vacant and non-nominated seats in RS, the NDA controls 108 (46%) of the seats.
To understand why this happens, it is useful to understand something about India’s first-past-the-post electoral system. In the 2019 LS election, a state such as Rajasthan gave the NDA all of its 25 seats on 61% vote share. Instead of proportionally getting about 3/5 of seats — consistent with its vote share — the disproportionality in the electoral system rewarded the NDA with every seat. But the MLAs vote, with a single transferable vote, for the RS. And, in a state such as Rajasthan, in which the BJP is in opposition, it will certainly fail to get 100% of the state’s allotted RS members. Insofar as the distribution of MLAs across India more closely mirrors the overall preferences of the Indian electorate, the RS may actually more closely represent the preferences of citizens.
But this also has political consequences. While we have observed significant political centralisation since Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, through decrees such as demonetisation to ramming through controversial bills such as the now-scrapped farm laws, controlling the RS is important to the BJP. While the Upper House cannot block money bills passed by the LS, it can block constitutional amendments and ordinary bills, and it is no secret that many BJP supporters would like to see significant changes to the Constitution. Yet, it is clear that despite an overwhelming majority in the LS, any attempt at modifying or amending the Constitution will require the BJP to negotiate with parties outside its coalition.
To put this another way, most political systems make it difficult to change constitutions, requiring broad agreement across political actors for such a change. India, on the other hand, has seen sweeping changes when a minority of voters has voted for the government in power. (Not that this is unfair; this is how the first-past-the-post systems work.)
India also has among the most liberal amendment policies in the world, with a high rate of amending the Constitution (At last count, 105 amendments in 74 years, in contrast with 27 amendments to the United States’ Constitution in 230-odd years). But it is certainly undesirable if the preferences of a minority of the population can change the Indian Constitution willy-nilly, and it is for this reason that we must see the RS as playing a “legitimate” role in the Indian democratic system.
The uncomfortable truth is that the defenders of this legitimacy are the MLAs in India. It is their votes that determine the outcome. And neither the public nor the political parties that nominate them trust MLAs to prioritise their job in representing their constituents over selling their RS votes to the highest bidder. This is why they need to be sequestered in resorts before votes.
The last several decades have ravaged the representational link between MLAs and citizens. In most cases, MLAs are not allowed to vote against their party due to anti-defection laws, and the rapidly growing “pay for play culture” in which wealthy candidates are expected to finance electoral campaigns has raised questions about who can really serve as a legislator.
As the BJP looks to further consolidate its power in India, it is no longer a matter of what citizens want. The democratic health of the country is in the hands of fickle politicians who, it appears, can easily be enticed by money and intimidated by government machinery. The RS election this time will not change the fundamental balance of political power in the country, but all of the ugliness around selecting new Upper House members may serve as an ominous prelude for what is to come.
Neelanjan Sircar is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal