BJP won’t win a Rajya Sabha majority until at least 2024

The year 2022 appears to have acquired mythical status among some Modi supporters. It’s when “New India” arrives in the form of a majority in the Rajya Sabha. Unfortunately that’s as likely to happen as the bullet train.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) currently has 90 seats in the Rajya Sabha, some thirty short of a majority. If we assume that all current state governments are re-elected between 2018 and 2019 — a very good scenario for the BJP — the Rajya Sabha looks as follows in 2020 (assuming no state legislators cross-vote):

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The NDA is still around 20 seats short of the halfway mark, leaving it dependent on non-aligned regional parties to muster the majority it needs to pass bills in the upper house. If we boldly extend the assumption that state governments are re-elected in 2020 and 2021, the Rajya Sabha looks like this in 2022:

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The NDA could still corral votes from smaller parties and pass bills via simple majority, but remains well short of the two-thirds mark needed to pass a constitutional amendment. This should reassure those who worry about the BJP’s goal of transforming India into a “Hindu Rashtra”, even if the party wins the 2019 election.

For argument’s sake, assume that Indian politics returns to a more “normal” pattern that is still favourable to the BJP. This means that the BJP loses in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan (2018), wins more narrowly in Maharashtra and Haryana (2019), the DMK wins Tamil Nadu (2021), INC gains in Assam (2021) and the BJP is narrowly re-elected in Uttar Pradesh (2022). Here’s what the 2022 Rajya Sabha looks like:

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In this scenario the NDA is 20 seats short of the halfway mark until 2024. That means that even if Modi is re-elected in 2019, control of both houses will remain a distant dream for his entire term, as will Hindu Rashtra. Hopefully the bullet train will be running by then.

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An upper hand in the Upper House

Now that the dust has settled on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s historic victory in Uttar Pradesh, let’s get down to the big question: how close does it get the ruling National Democratic Alliance to a Rajya Sabha majority, and when? The government’s minority status in the RS has slowed and even halted important elements of its legislative agenda, such as the GST and land acquisition amendments. An upper house majority would greatly strengthen its ability to pass bills, but it could also embolden the Sangh Parivar to push its core ideological issues such as a uniform civil code, eliminating Article 370 and perhaps even transforming India into a “Hindu Rashtra”.

Here’s what the Rajya Sabha currently looks like:

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UP is clearly the prize in the RS: it contributes 31 of the upper house’s 245 seats, of which ten will have elections in 2018 and another ten in 2020. With a supermajority in the UP state assembly, the BJP is likely to win seven new seats from UP in each round (it already has three RS MPs in UP).

Adding up all the states, the NDA will gain a total of 18 seats in 2017 and 2018 (including two grabbed from the Congress Party in Goa and Manipur), while the Congress Party and its allies’ tally will drop by a similar amount.

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Those are meaningful shifts in seats, but not enough to give the NDA control of the upper house, where it will remain short by about 30 seats (as this blog anticipated in 2014). It will continue to require the support of regional parties like the Trinamool Congress, AIADMK and Samajwadi Party to pass bills through the RS.

Things improve for the NDA in 2019 and 2020. If we assume no major changes in the state elections held in 2018 and 2019 (a strong but unavoidable assumption since we can’t predict the future), the NDA approaches an RS majority only in 2020.

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The ruling coalition will still fall a few seats short, but should be able to corral support from a wide selection of regional parties to pass bills. The good news, at least for people wary of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, is that the BJP will lack the power to change India’s constitution. But it should be able to push economic reform bills through both houses if its allies are supportive.

The bad news: the BJP has every intention – as revealed by Adityanath’s anointment as UP chief minister – to push ahead with hardline Hindutva. And if the environment is polarized enough, there is no guarantee that the BJP’s allies won’t cave to an aggressive right-wing assertion. Assuming, of course, that 2019 is in the bag for the BJP.

How various regions fare in Modi’s Cabinet

There has been much talk of the politics behind Prime Minister Narendra Modi ‘s 5 Jul Cabinet reshuffle. It hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that several new appointees came from Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, both states in which the BJP has big stakes and that have elections due in 2017.

But how important is regional representation in the appointment of ministers? One way is to look at how under- or over-represented various regions are. This map (from the business news daily Mint) shows that Hindi heartland and western Indian states have the strongest representation:

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A good first cut, but this only gives us absolute numbers. And it shouldn’t surprise that the more populous states get the most ministerial positions. One way to check under- or over-representation is to compare a state’s presence in the Council of Ministers with a baseline expectation of how much it should have. One way to do this is to look at the ratio of a state’s share of ministries with the proportion of Lok Sabha seats that it has (a number that is also roughly aligned with its population share).

And here is what we find:

Best represented states in the Council of Ministers (ministry share/LS seat share)

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Surprise! Goa and Arunachal Pradesh are at the top of the list, since the appointments of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju give each 3.5 times (or 350% of) their parliamentary presence (proportionate representation is equivalent to 1, or 100%). However small states skew these results because the appointment of only one or two ministers can give them huge over-representation.

Sticking to the larger states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar now stand demoted. The best represented are Haryana (2.1), Madhya Pradesh (1.9),  Rajasthan (1.7), Gujarat (1.6), Jharkhand (1.5), Bihar (1.4), Uttar Pradesh (1.3) and Karnataka (1.2). The poorest represented are Tamil Nadu (0.2), West Bengal (0.3), Odisha (0.3), Telangana (0.4), Assam (0.5), Chhattisgarh (0.6), Andhra Pradesh (0.8) and Maharashtra (0.9).

The states with the highest representation include those with well-established state BJP units that comprise the party core (with Haryana a notable outlier). Conversely, the states with the lowest representation are mostly those where the BJP is weak (with the interesting exceptions of Assam and Chhattisgarh where the BJP is the ruling party).

Regional representation isn’t the only factor in allocation ministerial positions, administrative ability and identity group balancing being other plausible drivers that could explain some of the deviations from 1 (or 100%). But the broad pattern seems consistent with a patronage model of politics in which political parties need to keep their base happy, motivated and delivering benefits to supporters.

Update

Another way to predict how much representation a state “deserves” would be to look at its contribution of parliamentary seats to the ruling coalition, in this case the 331-member National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The pattern now appears somewhat different:

Best represented states in the Council of Ministers (ministry share/NDA seat share)

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This time the small states are joined at the top of the list by large states in which the NDA has a limited presence. West Bengal and Tamil Nadu score high because they account for two and one ministers respectively, the same as the number of MPs they sent to the Lok Sabha. Among the larger states, the best represented are West Bengal (4.2), Tamil Nadu (4.2), Odisha (2.1), Haryana (1.8), Madhya Pradesh (1.4), Punjab (1.4) and Karnataka (1.3).

Other than Madhya Pradesh, which remains in the overrepresented column, the Hindi heartland and western states now seem more fairly represented, staying close to their weightage in the NDA: Bihar (1.1), Jharkhand (1.1), Rajasthan (1.0), Gujarat (1.0), Uttar Pradesh (0.9). Under-represented NDA states include Chhattisgarh (0.4), Maharashtra (0.6) and Assam (0.7).

From the NDA’s point of view, Modi’s Council of Ministers provides a good balance. No major state other than Kerala gets short shrift (though some in BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Assam might grumble).

Nitin Gadkari’s highway jumla

Roads and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari likes to present himself as the singlehanded builder of Indian highways. He has repeatedly claimed — most recently at the 2016 India Today Conclave — that the pace of highway construction has increased by close to ten times under his watch:

This would be brag-worthy if it were true, but it isn’t. Check the table below:

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There has been an increase of 30% in the pace of highway construction between 2014-15 and 2015-16, from about 12 to just under 16 km/day. While that’s commendable, it is the same pace of highway building that the policy-paralysed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) achieved in 2012-13.

Mr Gadkari has a penchant — like others in his government — for exaggeration. Perhaps he should hold the boasts for when the pace of highway construction actually exceeds the (did I mention demotivated and paralysed?) UPA’s.

Gassing about LPG

In a recent interview, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed full credit for transferring LPG subsidies directly to consumers. He also took a potshot at the Congress Party, saying that “the so-called pro-poor have been just repeating that there is leakage in subsidy”, implying that his government had done all the heavy lifting here.

The Modi government’s achievements with the Direct Benefits Transfer for LPG (DBTL) scheme, now christened the PAHAL Yojana, certainly seem impressive:

But, once again, Modi has misspoken. The Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government launched the DBTL scheme in pilot form on 1 June 2013 and expanded it to 291 (of 676) districts on 1 January 2014, when it covered 96 million consumers. Between 1 June 2013 and 8 March 2014, the scheme disbursed Rs 54 billion (US$900 million) in subsidies to 28 million consumers.

Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government relaunched a rejigged DBTL on 15 November 2014 in 54 districts, and expanded it nationwide on 1 January 2015. The scheme now has enrolled 129 million LPG consumers and disbursed a total of Rs 122 billion (US$1.9 billion) in fuel subsidies (though we don’t know how many consumers have actually benefited).

In short, the UPA enrolled 74% of all DBTL consumers, and the NDA has distributed about the same amount of cash to LPG consumers (albeit in a shorter period). Frankly, it’s a little silly to compare the records of two successive governments regarding a single scheme, since the second is obviously building on the work of the first, which in this case designed and rolled out the programme.

The Rajya Sabha will remain a headache for the NDA

With the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, securely in the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, the locus of political opposition is set to move to the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, where the BJP remains in a minority. Most bills need to be passed by both houses to become law, and this has sparked speculation as to how the BJP might push through its legislative agenda without a Rajya Sabha majority.

It is evident from the chart below that the the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) controls many more seats in the Rajya Sabha than does the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

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There are two obvious paths before the BJP:

  1. Regional parties. The ruling party could make deals with unaligned regional parties (such as the Biju Janata Dal and the AIADMK) to win support for specific bills. Since the NDA is 59 seats short of a majority it will have to convince six or seven of the largest regional parties to support it in the Rajya Sabha.
  2. Joint sittings. The BJP could arrange for joint sittings of the two houses under Article 118 of the constitution. The NDA is slightly over the halfway mark of the two houses’ 777 combined seats. However this is a rare step, carried out only thrice in Indian parliamentary history, and would require the consent of the President of India.

With two ordinances passed in its first two days, the Modi government has signalled that it may not be overly concerned about precedent. Even so, frequent joint sittings of the two houses could anger opposition parties that have become quite efficient at disrupting parliament in recent years.

The desirability of each strategy depends in part on how the number of seats controlled by the NDA grows over the next five years. If the NDA can woo new allies easily then it is less likely to take recourse to the more drastic step of calling joint parliamentary sessions. Recall that the Rajya Sabha reflects the balance of power in India’s states, and that a third of its members are elected every two years.

How then might the balance in the Rajya Sabha shift in the coming years? Let us assume that the NDA’s strong 2014 Lok Sabha performance translates into state election victories in 2014 (Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra), 2015 (Bihar) and 2016 (Assam) in roughly the same proportion. This is a contestable assumption because the national level “Modi wave” will have less relevance in a state election in which local factors gain prominence.

Still, maintaining that assumption, here is what the Rajya Sabha might look like in 2016 (excluding the 11 current vacancies in the upper house):

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This is quite clearly not enough to tilt the scales in the NDA’s favour. Even after the 2016 Rajya Sabha elections, the ruling alliance will be 47 seats short of a majority and will need the support of regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the All India Trinamool Congress.

The NDA’s prospects begin to sharply improve in its fourth year if the 2014 election results are mapped on to state elections in 2017. Keep in mind that this is a very optimistic scenario for the alliance: the BJP’s popularity could well have ebbed by then and the local factors mentioned above will again be in play in a state election. We are also assuming that party state assembly seat shares translate quite simply into Rajya Sabha votes; in practice there is often voting across party lines and strategic voting in favour of third candidates that can make the outcome less predictable.

But assuming that the broad patterns of the general election apply to the 2017 state elections in Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, this is what the Rajya Sabha could look like in 2018:

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The NDA is still 30 seats short of the halfway mark in the Rajya Sabha, and the ruling alliance will need to win over at least one of the three biggest regional parties (Samajwadi, Trinamool and AIADMK) plus an assortment of smaller players. The NDA is well over the halfway mark of a joint sitting at this point, so its preferred strategy will depend on how easily it can woo those parties.

Either way, the NDA will remain short of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, although its rising tally will require it to attract fewer allies by 2018. But 2018 is close to the end of the its term, which means that for most of its tenure the NDA will be forced to reach out to a large number of regional parties to pass bills in parliament.

Deflating expectations

Every time the price of onions rises, pundits remind us (here and here) of what happened in Delhi in 1998, when a spike in the price of onions is believed to have contributed to the state election defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Inflation does appear to matter greatly to Indian voters: “price rise” was the single most important issue for voters in the February 2014 CSDS tracker poll (PDF), followed by “development”, “corruption” and “economic growth”.

Some blame the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for feeding food inflation via frequent increases in the minimum support prices (MSP) for cereals like rice and wheat in its quest for rural votes. This may therefore have come as a bit of a surprise:

Modi’s declaration is a timely reminder of just how far we are from India’s “Thatcher moment“. India’s political realities do not permit a mass party like the BJP to ignore key constituencies, and this will continue to shape the economic policies of a future BJP-led government.

That said, inflation is a hot political issue and the BJP’s election manifesto claims that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) did much more to control inflation than did the UPA:

The BJP-led NDA Government’s record of holding the prices is a demonstration of our commitment to break the vicious cycle of high inflation and high interest rates.

Tellingly, the Indian National Congress manifesto has no mention of either inflation or “price rise”.

How to judge? Just as India’s economic growth is linked to the global economy through trade and investment flows (see How bad is the UPA’s economic record?), the prices of Indian goods and services — particularly those that are tradable — are tied to global prices. I therefore compare India’s annual GDP deflator since 1998 with that of developing countries (using World Bank data). The GDP deflator is a better measure than an inflation index (like the Consumer Price Index) because it does not limit its measurements to a fixed basket of goods and services but one that evolves with the economy.

And this is what we find: the NDA clearly was more successful at controlling prices than the UPA. In absolute terms, inflation rose from 4.5% during the NDA period (1998-2004) to 6.2% during UPA1 (2005-09), and further to 8.2% during UPA2 (2010-12).

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But how much of this can be blamed on poor economic management? That’s where the global comparison becomes relevant, and the UPA2 in particular performs poorly here. Under the NDA and UPA1, India’s inflation rate stayed below that of the developing world (although the differential decreased during UPA1). But under UPA2, Indian inflation soared to 2.5 percentage points above the developing country average. This can’t simply be explained away by high oil prices and inflation in food commodities (e.g. wheat and rice) because developing countries were also affected by those.

This World Bank chart shows how India’s inflation rate (in %) diverged quite sharply from other countries from 2009 onwards:

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So why did this separation occur? Plausible reasons include:

  • Fiscal deficit. The UPA sharply increased government spending in 2008-09, in the run up to the 2009 elections as well as to stave off the effects of the global crisis, but found it hard to reverse course and reduce the deficit subsequently for political reasons. Finance Minister P Chidambaram even blamed his predecessor, now President Pranab Mukherjee, last year for this inflationary surge.
  • Food prices. Food inflation has been a big driver of overall inflation in recent years. As their incomes have risen, Indians have consumed greater quantities of proteins such as milk, eggs, meat and fish, and the prices of these commodities have accordingly spiralled.
  • Minimum support prices. Government policies to ensure that farmers receive higher prices for cereals (e.g, rice and wheat) and pulses have also contributed to food inflation.
  • Subsidy reform. Ironically, price increases in petrol, diesel, non-nitrogen fertilisers and electricity aimed at reducing the deficit have helped increase inflation directly, as well as indirectly by making it more expensive to grow agricultural produce.
  • Rural wage increases. The wages of agricultural labourers have gone up rapidly, both because of the rural employment guarantee act and because of higher wages in sectors like construction that provide alternative employment for this section of workers.

Not everyone agrees that persistent inflation is a completely bad thing. Harish Damodaran argues that inflation in India is a consequence of the economic empowerment of lower-income groups.

For now, though, it’s the UPA that seems to be paying a political price for elevated inflation and slow economic growth.

Postscript

Some analysts like Yogendra Yadav do not think that the concept of “price rise” as presented in opinion polls is reducible to inflation. As he wrote in 2009:

In India ‘price rise’ is a way of talking about the lack of purchasing power or insufficient income rather than what economists call ‘inflation.’

If so, then real wage growth might better capture how the state of the economy will affect voting behaviour. But that’s a different study.

Running to stand still

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) continues to advance in the opinion polls.  The NDTV-Hansa survey projects a majority for the alliance if elections were held in March:

The CNN-IBN-CSDS-The Week election tracker is more cautious in its forecast, but has also projected a 20-seat improvement in the NDA’s seats tally over the past two months:

This is a good time to revisit the argument I made two months ago in Why you should ignore opinion poll seat projections. I had written that “Indian public opinion polls are much better at predicting party vote shares than they are at extrapolating to seats won in parliament or state assemblies… because vote shares translate into seats in an unpredictable way under India’s multiparty “first-past-the-post” electoral system.

So what does the latest vote share data tell us?

The NDTV-Hansa poll shows that the NDA has increased its vote share by 4.4 percentage points between February and April 2014, while the Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has slipped 1.2 percentage points:

The CNN-IBN-CSDS-The Week poll projects that the NDA vote share has risen one percentage point and the UPA vote share has fallen by a similar amount:

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If we assume a margin of error of 3%, this signifies no real change in the two alliances’ relative positions. In other words, the NDA’s advantage over the UPA has neither grown nor diminished in any concrete sense over the past two months.

No obvious correlation between turnout and anti-incumbency

Voter turnout in the first three rounds of India’s general election has shown a distinct increase by historical standards, particularly in some of the more populous states.

This has given rise to speculation that this is bad news for the incumbent United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

The UPA is clearly trailing in opinion polls, but this does not mean that a high turnout is necessarily bad news for the alliance. The chart below shows no obvious relationship between voter turnout and the level of anti-incumbency in Indian elections.

turnout and vote

That said, the turnout figures for Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are striking, and it will be worth watching whether they persist in subsequent rounds of voting in those states. This could be good news for the NDA if the increases are being driven by younger voters who — opinion polls show — are leaning towards the Narendra Modi-led alliance.

But if they are being driven by women (as occurred in the 2013 state elections) this could offer some relief to the UPA. Although the UPA performed poorly in those elections, both the CNN IBN-CSDS-Lokniti-The Week (see tables 3a and 3c) and NDTV-Hansa Research Group polls show that the female vote nationwide is divided equally between it and the NDA, while the male vote is decisively tilting in favour of the NDA.