From belligerence to despair and then anger — the mood in the Opposition camp in Rajya Sabha swung from one extreme to the other within a span of five hours as the BJP Government secured the support of fence-sitters BJD, TRS, YSRCP and AIADMK to defeat the Opposition bid to force referral of the contentious Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 to the select committee.
The Bill, which gave the government powers to decide salary and service terms of the statutory body head and its members, is seen by critics as diluting the law passed by a voice vote.
In a setback, the much-touted Opposition unity also came undone as the BSP, which attended a meeting convened by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi only yesterday, was absent from the House when the motion moved by Trinamool Congress’s Derek O’Brien was put to vote. The NCP did not take part in the debate and Congress sources said its four members, too, were not present during voting.
Together the four regional parties that broke ranks with the Opposition have 28 MPs — BJD has seven, TRS has six, YSRCP has two and AIADMK 13. The BSP and NCP has four MPs each.
In the end, the Opposition could get only 75 votes as against 117 bagged by the ruling side in the 245-member House.
Even without the BSP, and the NCP, the Opposition parties should have got over 95 votes. But they could add up to only 75 as many of their members were absent.
But in some relief to the Opposition, the government is learnt to have agreed to refer some of the Bills to the select committee as demanded by them. Apart from the RTI amendment bill, the opposition had yesterday demanded six more bills be referred to the select committee.
The tension-filled afternoon ended in high drama when C M Ramesh, who joined the BJP from TDP recently, was seen collecting voting slips from some of members sitting on the backbenches, prompting some of the opposition members — including Congress’s Viplove Thakur, Ripun Bora and CPM’s Elamaram Kareem — to charge towards him. Thakur rushed towards him and tried to snatch the voting slips resulting in fisticuffs..
Angry Opposition members charged to the Well of the House demanding a re-poll. And even as votes were being counted manually by the Parliament staff since the electronic voting machine was not used, the Opposition shouted slogans and minutes later walked out with Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad accusing the Government of undermining democracy by trying to convert Parliament into a department of the Government.
“This is how you got 303 seats…Inside Parliament, ministers are intimidating leaders of political parties..this is my charge…aap ke ruling party ke log MPs ko signature karate hain…jin MPs ko samajh nahn aaya…You want to make Parliament a department of the Government…We don’t have trust and faith in you,” he said before announcing the walkout.
Just before the voting, at least two ministers were seen walking towards the Opposition side and talking to TRS leader K Keshav Rao, prompting the Opposition to cry foul and the Chair to urge them to return to their seats.
The House witnessed similar stormy scenes when the Bill was taken up for consideration with the Opposition insisting that the motion that the Bill be referred to a select committee be voted upon first. Besides O’Brien, Congress’s Rajeev Gowda, CPM’s K K Ragesh, CPI’s Binoy Viswam and CPM’s Elamaram Kareem had moved similar motions.
Azad said these should be taken up first while the Government argued it could be taken up after the debate, triggering a war of words.
The House had to be adjourned twice. Senior Minister and Opposition leaders met in the Chairman’s chambers but there was no solution. When the House reassembled after the second adjournment, Deputy Chairman Harivansh, citing past practice, ruled that the motion can be taken before voting on the Bill after the debate.
The debate began and for the next over one hour, Opposition members were in the well shouting slogans, jeering and clapping even as members from the BJP, Shiv Sena and AIAMDK spoke. Their speeches were drowned in the din. But as the day progressed, it became clear to the Opposition benches that the government had secured the numbers.
When the House was adjourned again minutes before 4 pm, ministers and Opposition leaders met again. During the break, sources said the ministers told the Opposition leaders that the government was determined to pass the Bill and was even ready for voting. The government, however, offered a compromise that it can send some of the Bills identified by the Opposition to the select committee. The Opposition had yesterday demanded that seven bills including the RTI amendment Bill be referred to select committee.
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