The intense politicking that preceded elections to 27 Rajya Sabha seats was foretold. The Upper House has come to wield enormous influence over law-making. With the NDA comfortable in the Lok Sabha but lacking numbers in the Rajya Sabha, the latter has become the pre-eminent political battleground where the government and opposition most frequently sharpen their knives, and square off. Ironically, even as there is a hardening of government vs opposition lines in the Rajya Sabha, elections to the House have framed a blurring of the party line or whip, illustrated by the unprecedented cross-voting and the related phenomenon of the rise of political entrepreneurs.
In UP, Jharkhand and Karnataka, many legislators appear to have traded their votes for nominees other than those fielded by their respective parties. Haryana witnessed the comic spectacle of a former chief minister and his supporters failing to register their votes for the party candidate. The curious case of the inappropriate pen that surfaced midway in the election process at the polling booth and turned the votes of at least 14 Congress MLAs invalid has led to much speculation. Was it a section of the Congress, unhappy with the party high command’s choice of candidate, inventing a new trick to trip up a hapless R.K. Anand? Or a “deliberate fraud” by the returning officer, as has been alleged by a Congress general secretary? Anand, who was fielded by the Indian National Lok Dal, has alleged that he was the victim of a conspiracy hatched by the BJP and a section of the Congress opposed to his candidature. In Karnataka, the Janata Dal (S) has suspended eight MLAs suspected to have voted for the Congress nominee. In UP, the BJP and BSP have taken action against the party MLAs who defied the whip. In UP, a BJP-backed independent with no prior political record attracted votes from across the ideological spectrum and gave anxious moments to the Congress candidate. Candidates were in the fray, it seems, not just to win but more to prevent others from winning. Anecdotal evidence suggests that parties, worried about cross-voting, had spent lavishly to keep their flock together.
Political parties need to reflect seriously on these trends. Legislators seem all too willing to shift sides when suitable incentives are offered. Unprincipled party leaderships, agreeable to trading seats with moneybags, lack the moral stature to impose order on legislators or call to account the errant ones. Parties need to be more cautious about their choices to the Rajya Sabha and ensure that the mandate of the House — to reflect, debate and legislate — is not compromised at a delicate political moment.