The contest for the Deputy Chairperson’s position of the Rajya Sabha has assumed enormous political significance, given that it would be the first primary confrontation involving all major political parties and could pave the way for fresh alignments ahead of the 2019 Parliamentary polls. In fact, the election could demarcate the broad parameters of the showdown between the Opposition and the ruling dispensation, thus bringing to fore the fluidity of politics as it exists under the fast changing circumstances.
There is speculation that the BJP may delay the election since it is unsure that its nominee would carry the support of the majority in the 245-member House. The Vice President, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, has specified in clear terms that the Deputy Chairperson should be selected through a consensus. Naidu is an astute and perceptive leader, who due to his immense experience comprehends the overall ramifications of a close contest, and has therefore made his observations so as to avoid the election for maintaining semblance and order in the Upper House.
Naidu has also held a meeting with the Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar, but the schedule for the polling is yet to be finalised. The post has always been held by a Congress leader, except for a brief period of three years when B.D. Khobragade of the Republican Party occupied the office in 1969. This happened in the wake of the first split in the Congress following differences within the party over the election of the President, with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, opposing the candidacy of Lok Sabha Speaker, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy for the post. Indira succeeded in having her nominee V.V. Giri elected as the President, in a very close encounter, after she appealed to the political class, including her own party, to cast a conscience vote.
The Deputy Chairperson’s position has fallen vacant after P.J. Kurien recently retired from the Rajya Sabha, and the Congress decided to give his seat to an ally in Kerala. The Congress is the largest Opposition party in the House, with 50 members and thus routinely would have made a pitch for the post with the help of other Opposition entities. However, Mamata Banerjee appears keen to field her colleague Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, and indications are that the Congress is inclined to support him or a nominee of the Biju Janata Dal in case the Odisha Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, agrees to allow someone from his party to enter the fray. It is evident that the Congress will facilitate a nominee from a regional outfit to occupy the office in order to thwart the BJP.
Many in the Congress are viewing the Rajya Sabha election as a precursor of the political alignment for next year’s Lok Sabha polls. The predicament is that within the Opposition ranks, there are certain misgivings regarding the issue. For instance, the Left parties which have around nine members are not comfortable with the idea of backing a Trinamool Congress nominee, given their conspicuously unmistakable differences. The Congress, on its part, is in a persuasive mode in trying to convince the Left leaders to come on board, with the objective of preventing a BJP supported candidate from being elected, but so far the matter remains unresolved.
Similarly, the BJP, which has 69 members in the House, is uncertain whether it would procure the numbers to get someone of its choice elected to the post. Thus Naresh Gujral, son of former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, and a third term Shiromani Akali Dal member, is emerging as the BJP’s possible choice. The saffron brigade, which had launched its Look East Policy by declaring that it would contest the Odisha Assembly polls against the Biju Janata Dal to wrest power in the state is currently in two minds. It is bending backwards to seek the support of the 71-year-old Chief Minister, while simultaneously strengthening its own base in the coastal state. It is hoping that Naveen Patnaik would refrain from siding with any party and if that was to happen, the BJP would be able to overcome the number crunch for getting its nominee through.
The BJP’s principal dilemma is that a close contest may highlight the fault-lines in the National Democratic Alliance it heads; being unsure whether, for instance, Shiv Sena would back the formation’s candidate. It, primarily, was for this reason that the BJP had not permitted the no confidence motion to be taken up in the Lok Sabha during the last session, as it would have exposed its differences with the allies, by bringing them out in the open. This is a matter that the party cannot afford to do—with barely nine months left for the Lok Sabha polls.
The Rajya Sabha secretary general, Desh Deepak Verma, has stated in an interview to a national daily that delaying the Deputy Chairperson’s election was inconsistent with parliamentary propriety, and as per convention after the position falls vacant, the new incumbent is elected in the following session. If the BJP follows the custom, the election should be held during the 18 sittings of the monsoon session. It seems that the BJP, if left on its own, may justify the delay by stating that the six or seven Vice Chairpersons can for the time being fill the void of the Deputy Chairperson. The issue now is in the NDA’s court. Between us.