What the Rajya Sabha election could tell us about 2019

The opposition was too complacent in the Rajya Sabha election, and needs to regroup before 2019.

WrittenBy:Anand Kochukudy
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The election of the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman scheduled on Thursday was supposed to be a nail-biter. Instead, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate—Harivansh Narayan Singh of the Janata Dal (United)—pipped Congress’ BK Hariprasad by a fair margin. Although it was initially reported that the NDA polled 125 to the opposition’s 105, the figure released by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat later in the day brought the opposition’s number down to 101.

While the election offers some trends on the road to the general elections next year, it has to be read in the context of the events that preceded it.

How the die was cast

By the time the election to the vacant post of the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman was announced on August 6, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had already set things in motion. The 15 votes commanded by fence-sitters Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) was going to determine the contest, and the BJP got down to working the phones. The 13 votes of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) mattered too, but were almost assured.

The opposition was rather taken aback when Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu informed the house of the impending election on Monday. They had been under the impression that the election would happen only in the next session, as the Parliament had entered the last week of the monsoon session. The Congress’ proposal for a candidate from the smaller parties saw Vandana Chavan of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) emerging as the frontrunner. But on Tuesday afternoon, just before the floor leaders of the opposition parties were to meet again to finalise their strategy, Sharad Pawar withdrew his candidate, citing lack of numbers.

A source close to the NCP chief said: “When Pawar Saheb rang up his BJP counterpart, Naveen Babu (Patnaik) expressed his helplessness as he had already committed to vote for the BJP. Even if the three Shiv Sena MPs voted for our candidate, we could have still fallen short without the BJD.”

Although the name of Tiruchi Siva of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was also considered, it was finally decided to field a Congress candidate. The Congress, in turn, decided to nominate veteran BK Hariprasad.

How the election panned out

While the Prime Minister himself worked the phones along with Nitish Kumar to seek support for the NDA candidate, the opposition was rather complacent with their strategy. Restive ally Shiv Sena and the sulking Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD)—whose Naresh Gujral was initially being considered by the BJP as their candidate—eventually came around following Amit Shah’s intervention. Despite announcing that they would vote against the BJP a day before the election, the YSR Congress Party chose to abstain in the end.

As for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Sanjay Singh had publicly demanded that Congress President Rahul Gandhi make a call to his party chief Arvind Kejriwal to seek support for the Congress candidate. Despite other senior Congress leaders reaching out to Kejriwal, the AAP decided to abstain. Even the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)—ditched by the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir last month—chose to abstain, after initially hinting at supporting the opposition candidate. The lone Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) MP too supported the NDA candidate.

But what actually made it worse for the opposition were the abstentions of 10 guaranteed votes—exposing their shoddy floor management. While three of the absentees were from the Congress, three MPs from the Samajwadi Party (SP), two from the DMK, and two from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) too absented themselves. While DMK’s Kanimozhi was expected to miss out on account of her bereavement, most of the others had less convincing reasons for failing to turn up.

In comparison, except for a lone MP from the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the NDA ensured that none of their MPs were missing in action. Arun Jaitley returned to the house and made his first public appearance since April following his renal surgery. The NDA was hoping to tally 125 votes and despite the abstention of the NPF member, they managed that figure as one MP from the opposition ranks ended up cross-voting. Despite rumours in the Parliament corridors that the cross-voter was none other than Rashtriya Janata Dal MP (and former BJP Law Minister) Ram Jethmalani, it was vehemently denied by sources close to Misa Bharti.

Inferences and conclusions

In hindsight, many prominent opposition leaders wondered if things would have gone differently if a non-Congress candidate was put up. Some of them did admit that the Telugu Desam Party (TDP)’s CR Ramesh—who defeated the same Harivansh Narayan Singh in the election to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Monday—was also briefly in contention to be the opposition candidate. Many leaders said off-the-record that the TDP MP might have been a more acceptable candidate to the TRS, the BJD and the AAP.

Despite voting in favour of the BJP, it need not be concluded that either the BJD or the TRS would enter into a pre-poll alliance for the general elections. Although the Congress’ slide in Odisha has been arrested with the appointment of old warhorse Niranjan Patnaik as PCC chief, the BJP has leapfrogged the Congress in the state to emerge as the prime challenger to Patnaik, and it might be a bit premature to read too much into this one instance. In Patnaik’s defence, it can also be argued that he has an old Socialist connection with the Janata Dal (United).

Rahul Gandhi is predictably under fire for not trying enough to maximise the opposition numbers, despite having a Congress candidate in the fray. The fact that he couldn’t pick up the phone to make a call to Arvind Kejriwal will certainly be held against him. Rahul Gandhi needs to master realpolitik to really take on the might of the Modi regime and for that, he will have to learn to talk to friends and foes alike. And in politics, there are no permanent friends or foes.

Just as it is convenient to blame Rahul Gandhi, questions would be asked of Mamata Banerjee, who has been rallying opposition parties. One wonders why she did not use her good offices with Arvind Kejriwal, TRS’s Chandrasekhar Rao, and Naveen Patnaik to swing the poll. A source close to the TMC revealed that despite Derek O’ Brien’s request for her intervention, she chose not to.

Poor floor management and abstentions aside, the opposition can collectively heave a sigh of relief that all the major parties in the opposition bloc (except for the fence-sitters) voted in favour of the Congress candidate. It is not a mean feat for so many of the regional parties and the Left parties to vote for a Congress candidate. This relative unity can be attributed to the recent accommodative stance taken by the Congress on the question of the “face of opposition” in general elections 2019.

But devoid of the killer instinct and the sheer will to win, it might still come well up short in a battle of wits against the BJP. “We don’t play to lose,” commented Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad after the result was declared yesterday. The opposition needs to draw their lessons from this defeat and regroup quickly to keep up the momentum.


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