The Congress-led opposition alliance suffered a major, even embarrassing setback after the ruling NDA’s candidate easily won the election for the deputy chairmanship of the Rajya Sabha. Janata Dal (United) member Harivansh Narayan Singh’s election as M Venkaiah Naidu’s deputy is politically significant. For the first time, NDA demonstrated its dominance in the Upper House that was till recently controlled by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) with its sheer numbers. The UPA had utilised its numbers in the Rajya Sabha over the last four years to stall several legislations, drag government business and reform bills. In fact, several conciliatory measures were adopted by the government benches for the government to have its say in the House and go past the Congress-led opposition. From GST, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes bill and triple talaq, the NDA had faced major hurdles from opposition.
Singh’s election is the first instance in over four years when NDA stood up on its own and had its way in the House. Till July 1, Congress member PJ Kurien was deputy chairman and completed a six-year term as a member necessitating election afresh. By convention, the positions of deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha and deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha are held by opposition parties. Given that the NDA and the UPA do not see eye to eye in the present Parliament, this convention seems to have been given the go-by.
While NDA had settled for AIADMK member M Thambidurai as deputy speaker in the Lok Sabha, fielding its own ally JD-U member Harivansh gave it heft in the Rajya Sabha. The fact that rival DMK was part of the UPA must have worked in favour of Thambidurai, though his faction ridden party, AIADMK, is not part of the NDA. Pushing for JD-U nominee seems to have given peeved NDA allies a sense of purpose in the present government. BJP president Amit Shah seems to have made use of the opportunity to the hilt to reach out to not only traditional allies but find new friends to garner “issue based support” — case in point was Biju Janata Dal (BJD) led by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik that supported Harivansh’s candidature. Retaining all traditional allies and getting the support of the nine-member BJD, allowed Harivansh to secure 125 votes vis-à-vis Congress opponent BKHari Prasad who polled 105 votes. Most interestingly, edgy NDA ally Shiv Sena turned around to support the official candidate.
Meanwhile, the opposition camp appears to have realised the limitations of trumped up unity. The result of the election is a grim reminder that assorted opposition parties coming together on an anti-BJP platform may not work in the next Lok Sabha elections. Contradictions from within are bound to show up as the campaign picks up pace. Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and its archrival, YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh voted for the Congress candidate. Does this meant that there will be a Congress-TDP-YSR Congress combine going forward? Competitive political stakes in Andhra Pradesh need to be taken into account for this.
Similarly, the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati and Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav stuck together with the Congress in the elections. It will be interesting to see whether they operate as belonging to the same political formation. On the fluid political chessboard, even the NDA may have to go through twists and turns in Odisha when it challenges BJD’s hegemony in the state. The Shiv Sena cannot be reined-in as a reliable ally in Maharashtra given that it is jostling for the same political space in which BJP has entrenched itself firmly.
But, the BJP seems to have done well by beginning to mend fences with its allies. To sustain NDA, BJP will have to make more sacrifices and demonstrate its dexterity.