How Rajya Sabha’s polls became a public ballot

The secrecy of the vote is the foundation of free and fair elections. Rajya Sabha elections are unique in this regard, where the vote is not secret. MPs elect MPs from their Rajya Sabha state and as the process stands must show the votes to their party’s representative. However, the open ballot voting system is a 2003 addition to our Rajya Sabha electoral system.

Until 1998, Rajya Sabha elections were the bastion of party discipline, with their outcome inescapable. The party-nominated candidates would win outright. Voting only took place when there were more candidates than vacancies in the state. Electoral competition was generally between independent candidates.

The June 1998 elections in Rajya Sabha in Maharashtra changed this position. Seven contenders were vying for six seats. The Congress had fielded two candidates – Najma Heptullah, who had served three terms in the Upper House, and Ram Pradhan, a former IAS executive from Maharashtra and former Union home secretary. The Shiv Sena candidates were its incumbent MP Satish Pradhan and media personality Pritish Nandy. Pramod Mahajan, who had lost the Lok Sabha elections earlier that year, was running for the BJP.

There were two independent candidates: media baron Vijay Darda, who was backed by Congress, and former railway minister Suresh Kalmadi, who was backed by the Shiv Sena. Kalmadi had revolted against the Congress.

Congress had enough votes to ensure the victory of its two candidates. But in a surprising turn of events, congressional candidate Ram Pradhan, a close associate of Sonia Gandhi, lost. An independent candidate sailed.
The votes cast by deputies were secret, and congressional deputies defied their party’s voting instructions, causing Pradhan’s defeat. Reports suggest lawmakers from other parties also cross-voted.

Pradhan’s loss reverberated in all political circles to such an extent that the parties began to think of measures to rein in their deputies.

The solution ultimately came from the Rajya Sabha Ethics Committee, established in 1997 and headed by Rajya Sabha MP and former Maharashtra Chief Minister SB Chavan.

In its first report of December 1998, the committee observed that money and muscle power were playing an increasing role in the Rajya Sabha elections, suggesting: from a secret ballot, the issue of holding elections to the Rajya Sabha and to the Legislative Councils in the States by public ballot may be examined.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 2001 acted on the suggestion.

Arun Jaitley, the then Minister of Justice, introduced a bill in Parliament to amend the Rajya Sabha Elections Act with an open voting system and the removal of residency requirements for contesting ballot boxes. Kuldeep Nayar, a veteran journalist who was appointed MP for Rajya Sabha, challenged its constitutional validity in the Supreme Court, arguing that “the concept of open balloting would run counter to the achievement of free and fair elections”.

The Court rejected this claim and declared the law to be constitutional. He considered that “the secrecy of the ballot is a vital principle in guaranteeing free and fair elections. The highest principle, however, is that of free and fair elections and election purity. If secrecy becomes a source of corruption, then sunlight and transparency have the ability to remove it”.

But an open ballot did not help bring purity to the Rajya Sabha elections or prevent the party’s candidates from losing. A common party response, as evidenced by the recent Rajya Sabha elections, has been to gather their MPs at hotels and resorts to prevent poaching.

As Niloptal Basu, a MP for CPM Rajya Sabha, said during the debate on the Open Ballot Law: “We should as political parties think seriously about how the principles on which political parties operate can be rectified; as to how we can resume certain sound practices in politics… The problem of indiscipline and the problem of dissidents can never be stopped in this way unless we improve our system of internal democracy, unless we have healthy practices”.

The author is PRS Legislative Research Outreach Lead

About Terry Simmons

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