The winter session of Parliament ended on a sour note,with Rajya Sabha being adjourned at midnight,ahead of the voting on the Lokpal bill. This episode was the final scene of a session that saw the government unable to carry through some of its proposals. There were at least six other such instances.
The first such event was with regard to opening up the retail sector to foreign direct investment. This move does not require legislative sanction,and the cabinet approved an executive decision. However,several political parties,both from the opposition benches and some on the treasury side were opposed to the proposal. Parliamentary proceedings were repeatedly disrupted as MPs demanded that the government reverse this policy initiative. The government then backtracked and deferred its decision on this issue.
The commercial division of high courts bill was discussed by the Rajya Sabha on December 13. This bill proposes to create a separate bench in the high courts to hear commercial disputes where the value under consideration is above Rs 5 crore. The bill was not referred to the standing committee and was passed by the Lok Sabha in December 2009. However,at that time,the Rajya Sabha decided to form a select committee to examine the bill. That committee made several recommendations including reducing the cut-off value to Rs 1 crore. During the debate in the Rajya Sabha this session,several MPs suggested changes and the law minister,in his reply,said that the government would prefer to defer the consideration of the bill,as it would like to bring in fresh amendments.
Soon after the above discussion,the Rajya Sabha was slated to discuss the copyright amendment bill. Even as the HRD Minister Kapil Sibal rose to propose the consideration,there were objections from several members. They contended that the minister had a conflict of interest as his son was representing some music companies that would be affected by the bill. The chair ruled that the Rajya Sabha rules did not prohibit the minister from participating in the debate; however,the discussion was deferred. Indeed,the rules only require any member who has an interest to make a declaration before speaking. And ministers do not represent their personal views; they present the position of the government as decided by the cabinet. Thus,they are not required to make any declaration. (In this case,the minister was not even a member of the House,being a Lok Sabha MP.)
Soon after the Lok Sabha passed the Lokpal bill on December 27,it voted on the constitutional amendment that would have given the Lokpal constitutional status. The motion was defeated by a wide margin even if all the absent MPs had been present and voting,the two-thirds majority would not have been met.
The next day,the Lok Sabha discussed the judicial standards and accountability bill,together with a constitution amendment bill to raise the retirement age of high court judges from 62 to 65 years. The business advisory council had allotted four hours for the discussion. After five hours,the leader of the opposition demanded the debate be concluded and voting held. Her claim was that the government did not have adequate numbers in the house to get the bills passed,and it was delaying the vote. After interruptions,the house was adjourned,without concluding the discussion.
The same day,the agriculture minister tried to introduce a bill to establish the Rani Lakshmi Bai Central Agricultural University. Some MPs objected,saying that the Union list did not permit Parliament to establish universities. This objection was overruled by the chair,saying that the subject was in the concurrent list,and that many universities have been established by acts of Parliament. At this stage,there was a demand for a vote to decide whether the bill may be introduced. Yet again,the government deferred the vote.
Do these event portend a trend in which the government will be unable to pass significant bills? In some of the above cases,the opposition has objected on conceptual grounds such as the issue of federalism,and of oversight by Parliament (as in the FDI decision). In some other cases,the objection was on issues that have been settled by precedent,but the opposition had the majority in the House to stall the government. Given that the government will likely not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha,and there are bills (such as the food security bill and land acquisition bill) that raise the issue of states rights,the government may have to reach out to its allies and the opposition parties to get its legislative agenda through Parliament.
The writer is with PRS Legislative Research,Delhi