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.

A tax too far

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s minority status in the Rajya Sabha has proven to be a big impediment to its legislative goals, and the long-delayed Goods and Services Tax (GST) — which needs a 2/3rds majority in the Rajya Sabha to pass — seems as distant as ever.

In the Rajya Sabha elections held for 12 seats this week in Assam, Kerala, Nagaland, Punjab and Tripura, the Indian National Congress (INC) dipped from 66 to 63 seats (in the 245-seat upper house), while the BJP was flat at 48. The INC might drop another seat in the Rajya Sabha in the coming 4-5 months while the BJP could gain another three, but the ruling coalition is unlikely to make any meaningful gains in the upper house until 2018, close to the end of its term.

This is what the Rajya Sabha could look like by August:

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Clearly, the BJP will need the support of several uncommitted regional parties to pass bills through the upper house until at least 2018, and probably beyond.

And what of the GST? In a recent investor note, Morgan Stanley argued that:

The key to the bill’s passage is a reduction in the number of Upper House members opposing the bill. That number currently stands at 91 and it needs to fall to 82 for the bill to clear – we forecast that to happen by July 2016.

Not so fast.  It seems as if the Morgan Stanley analysts are treating the Janata Dal (United) as a GST supporter and placing the AIADMK — a vocal GST opponent — into the “opposing” column. But that’s overly optimistic: the JD(U) has a coalition in Bihar with the INC and is unlikely to vote for the GST bill. Neither are the two Left parties that control nine seats between them. And the Kerala, and Tam

The conclusion: this round of Rajya Sabha elections changes nothing for the BJP, it’ll still need INC support to pass the GST.

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.