Rajya Sabha elections are a dull affair. Usually, a party’s candidate wins unopposed. But the elections to be held today in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have been preceded by a lot of drama. In Gujarat, eight Congress MLAs resigned before the election. In Rajasthan, Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has accused the BJP of trying to poach the MLAs supporting his government. In Madhya Pradesh, there is continuing political uncertainty following the resignation of 22 MLAs in March leading to the unseating of the Congress government.
The Constitution specifies that only the elected MLAs of a state assembly can vote in a Rajya Sabha election. During the making of the Constitution, Constituent Assembly members, Mahboob Ali Baig and Mahavir Tyagi suggested that voting in these elections should take place using a single transferable vote. In this method, a voter, instead of voting for a single candidate, ranks all candidates according to his preference. Voting only takes place when there are more candidates than the vacant seats. They reasoned that this method would lead to the election of candidates opposed to the majority party in a state. Tyagi said, “whenever high State policy is under discussion we can have the advantage of the views of the other side only if they are allowed to come in by this method. The democracy of the Western type is based on the free play of the Opposition. Without good Opposition, democracy will become one-legged, it would limp and tumble down.”
But getting elected to the Rajya Sabha is no longer the cakewalk it used to be. The outcome in these elections depends on the dynamics within a party and external pressure exerted by competing parties. Also, Rajya Sabha seats are no longer the exclusive domain of career politicians. Increasingly, wealthy and ambitious individuals are vying for them too. Consequently, money and muscle power are playing a more significant role in these elections. The legislature has also not been idle — it has passed a law to secure the sanctity of elections to the upper house.
The rot in the Rajya Sabha elections started becoming evident in the late nineties. During this time, MLAs were regularly convinced to vote against their party’s candidate (cross-vote). To stem the rot, in 1999, a Rajya Sabha committee headed by S B Chavan mooted the idea of voting by open ballots in the elections to the upper house. It thought that the move would prevent “big money and other considerations to play mischief with the electoral process”. As a result, Parliament passed a law in 2003 requiring MLAs to show their votes to their party before voting in a Rajya Sabha election. But neither did the law stop the MLAs from cross-voting, nor could it prevent the influence of big money.
In 2006, cross-voting received a shot in the arm with the Supreme Court deciding that the practice would not attract the penalty under the anti-defection law. And the blatant use of money became evident in the 2016 Rajya Sabha elections in Karnataka. An MLA in the state assembly, Mallikarjun Khuba, was purportedly caught on tape stating, “If you want my vote, it will not be one or two crore. Give election money, it is settled. My offer is above five crore. For the team, it is the same rate”. The Election Commission had to recommend the filing of a criminal case against him.
The open ballot, while noble, provides legal and technical grounds for invalidating votes. For example, in the 2017 Gujarat Rajya Sabha election (in which Ahmed Patel was a candidate), two Congress MLAs were suspected by their party of voting for the BJP candidate. On the complaint of the Congress representative — that they had shown their votes to the BJP’s election agent — their votes were held invalid. And in Haryana, in 2016, it was the use of an unofficial violet pen for voting that rendered the votes of 12 Congress MLAs invalid. It led to the BJP-supported candidate, industrialist Subhash Chandra, winning the election.
These events make one thing clear. Politics is competitive, and it’s easy to comply with the letter of the law rather than its spirit. And a stricter law will make no difference. Political parties and MLAs will find ways around them, like resigning from the legislatures en masse. A lasting solution to probity in Rajya Sabha elections can only come from within political parties.
The writer is head of legislative and civic engagement at PRS Legislative Research