The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government appears to be in no hurry to proceed with the election of the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha as it is not confident it has sufficient support to ensure the victory of a candidate of its choice.
On the other hand, the opposition is not pushing for early notification of the election either as they are also in the process of getting the requisite number of political parties on board for the election of their nominee.
The last deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, PJ Kurien, retired on July 2. The post is usually held by the opposition but in this case the BJP would like that its own candidate occupies this office, especially since the ruling alliance is still short of a majority in the Upper House.
The deputy chairperson conducts the business of the House in the absence of the chairman who does not usually sit for more than two hours in the first half of the day. Though there’s no time frame specified for the election, it is normally conducted shortly after the post falls vacant.
The BJP’s parliamentary managers admit that they are in no rush to hold the election as the party wants to evolve a consensus among the political parties on a joint candidate. However, opposition leaders maintain they have not been approached by the government in this connection and they have also not pursued this matter with the BJP.
“Basically neither side is going on the offensive in this game. Both prefer to play on the defensive here,” remarked a senior opposition leader from the Rajya Sabha.
There is some talk in the BJP that the party should offer this post to an alliance partner instead of pushing for its own candidate. Shiromani Akali Dal MP Naresh Gujral’s name is being mentioned as a possibility in the hope that the opposition would have no objection to his candidature since he enjoys a good rapport with members from across the political spectrum.
In addition, it would also help in getting the support of the Biju Janata Dal as the friendship between Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik and Gujral goes back several decades. On his part, Gujral has made it clear that he would be happy to accept this offer provided there is a consensus among all the parties on his name.
This delay or, as some say, reluctance in the BJP is being attributed to the fact that Gujral’s name has been suggested by Union minister Arun Jaitley. Evidently, there is no end to the factional war in the BJP. In addition, Gujral is seen to be “too independent” and cannot be depended upon to come to the aid of the party when required.
However, the opposition maintains it has yet to be consulted on Gujral’s candidature. At the same time, the opposition has not broached the subject with the BJP either. It is waiting for the BJP to make the first move. While maintaining that it is open to the idea of a consensus candidate, the combined opposition has not given up on fielding its own candidate.
The opposition parties, which met on the eve of the current Parliament session to chalk out their floor strategy, had unanimously decided that they would field a common candidate. No names were discussed. Coming at a time when opposition parties are proposing the formation of an anti-BJP alliance in the run-up to next year’s Lok Sabha polls, the otherwise routine election of the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha has acquired another dimension: it will be an opportunity for the opposition to showcase its combined strength.
“The truth is that the BJP does not want to be defeated,” remarked another opposition leader. “It is, therefore, delaying the election till it is confident about the numbers. The election could well be put off till the winter session.”
Though the BJP is now the single largest party in the Upper House with 69 members, it does not have the numbers to cross the half-way mark in the 245-member House. The line-up on both sides shows that the BJP and its allies, as well as the opposition grouping, enjoy the support of 117 members each.
The six-member Telugu Rashtriya Samithi and two members each of the People’s Democratic Party and the YSR Congress Party hold the key to this election as their support can tilt the balance either way. Though the Telugu Desam Party has parted company with it, the BJP has more than compensated for the loss of its six MPs in the Rajya Sabha by gaining an ally in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which voted with the government in last week’s no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha and has as many as 13 MPs in the upper house. The support of the nine-member Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal is contingent on Gujral’s candidature. There is no certainty that it will be willing to support any other candidate fielded by the BJP.
On the other hand, the opposition camp has its own set of problems. Though the Congress has reluctantly agreed to give up its claim on the post in favour of a regional party in order to keep the opposition flock together despite the fact that it is the largest party with 50 MPs, it is still to evolve a consensus on a common candidate. Trinamool Congress MP Sukhendu Sekhar Roy is being mentioned as a possibility but the Left parties will not support him. The opposition has also offered the post to the BJD but Patnaik is unlikely to agree. The DMK’s Tiruchi Siva, a four-term MP, is also in contention as he is a member of the panel of vice-chairpersons and has the experience of managing the House. But there is no finality on the candidature.
With the BJP and the opposition still to sort matters out, both sides are happy to play the waiting game.