There were red faces in the government Monday after the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, realising that the treasury benches were short of numbers, forced a crucial clause to be dropped from a Constitution amendment Bill granting constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). The Constitution (123rd Amendment) Bill, 2017, was passed minus Clause 3 which dealt with the composition of the commission. This means that the government will have to start the process afresh in Lok Sabha with a new Bill that need not include amendments pushed through by the Opposition in the Upper House.
In Rajya Sabha, Congress MPs Digvijaya Singh, B K Hariprasad and Husain Dalwai moved several amendments, including one for the inclusion of a woman member and a minority member in the commission. The amendments needed to be passed with a simple majority, and it did with a 74-52 margin. But that is when the situation changed. The amendments had passed with a simple majority but for the clause amended to become part of the Bill, it needed a two-third majority since it was a Constitution amendment Bill.
After several reminders from the chair to the members that the passed amendments could not be unpassed and that the only hope for the entire Bill lay in the House voting together on the relevant clause — this meant that the government would have to vote ‘Aye’ on the clause amended at the Opposition’s behest — and suspension of business for a few minutes to evolve consensus, the clause had to be dropped since it could not secure the requisite majority.
The suspension was in lieu of an adjournment because the Opposition refused to let the lobbies be opened, pre-empting any attempt by the treasury benches to replenish their depleted numbers by calling in absentee MPs from outside the House.
Sensing what was in store, Finance Minister and Leader of the House Arun Jaitley said: “If they want OBC reservation to fail, then so be it.” This had Opposition leaders, including Ghulam Nabi Azad and Sitaram Yechury, on their feet, professing commitment to the OBC cause. But neither side budged from their positions.
Jaitley’s pleas that introducing such a clause in a Constitution amendment Bill would open it to challenge in courts too failed to cut ice. When the clause finally fell, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi told the Opposition: “You will be punished for this mistake for years to come (Is khata ki sazaa aapko salon tak milti rahegi)”. This led to a shouting match between Congress MPs and treasury benches with Naqvi and Prakash Javadekar in the lead.
Barring the unexpected fall of Clause 3, proceedings in the House were on expected lines with speaker after speaker standing up to support the Bill, the common concerns being whether it encroached on the rights of the states and compromised the federal structure and on the inclusion of a woman member in the commission.
In his reply, Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Thaawarchand Gehlot sought to allay fears on the federalism count and said the composition could be dealt with in the rules. Initiating the discussion, Hariprasad tried to pin the government on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement in the run-up to the 2015 Bihar elections about reservations needing a review.
Hariprasad questioned the government on its “hurry” to get a Bill “dealing with more than 50 per cent of the population” passed in Lok Sabha in five days. It was later referred to a Select Committee of Rajya Sabha headed by BJP MP Bhupender Yadav whom Hariprasad called “BJP’s Man Friday.” Yadav struck back, saying the Congress had not done anything for OBCs for 70 years.
D(U) speakers Ramnath Thakur and Sharad Yadav took objection to the introduction of the creamy layer clause. Sharad Yadav said it had no Constitutional basis and should, therefore, be taken out of the Bill.