Bills of the same fate

The strikingly similar histories of the Lokpal and women’s bills

Written by Coomi Kapoor | Published: January 4, 2012 3:12:04 am

The chequered histories of the Lokpal bill and the Women’s Reservation Bill are strikingly similar. Both were hailed as landmark legislation and endorsed by the political class and media alike. Every time there was a move to introduce these bills in Parliament,words like “momentous’’ and “historic’’ were bandied about. Yet,curiously,the bills could not become law. Small wonder then that there is widespread cynicism about the real intentions of politicians. Interestingly,in both cases,the issue of quotas for minorities was the ostensible cause for deflecting the debate.

The Women’s Reservation Bill has been in limbo for over 15 years. Three prime ministers — H.D. Deve Gowda,A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh — had put their weight behind the bill and made it a prestige issue. The numbers seem stacked in its favour,with the ruling party and the mainstream opposition parties all publicly backing the required amendment to the Constitution. But each time a last-minute hitch cropped up. The women’s bill was first introduced in 1996. Last year,the bill was passed by Rajya Sabha with much fanfare. Feminists declared their long-cherished dream that women would occupy at least one-third of seats in Parliament had finally been realised. But when the constitutional amendment came before Lok Sabha,it hit a roadblock. Regional,caste-based parties created a ruckus and,though they did not have the numbers to block the bill,the government chose to retreat. In reality,most MPs were privately opposed to an inconvenient bill. It would mean every 10 years they would have to switch their constituencies to make way for a woman candidate.

The Lokpal bill has an even longer history of aborted attempts. The idea of setting up an ombudsman was mooted by the Administrative Reforms Commission more than four decades ago. A bill to this effect was introduced in Parliament for the first time in 1968. Last week,the Lokpal bill was cleared in Lok Sabha. But in a manner similar to the Women’s Reservation Bill,it got stymied at the last moment in Rajya Sabha. In a dramatic late-night development,the ruling party,sensing defeat,advanced the excuse that it was midnight and the House could not continue any longer. It also cited the disruptions by RJD MP Rajniti Prasad as a reason for backing off. The leader of the opposition in the Upper House,Arun Jaitley,quipped that it was a case of “fleedom at midnight”.

A blame game is now afoot as to who was responsible for the stalemate. The government claims the BJP was at fault for sabotaging the bill by putting forward 187 amendments,knowing full well that time was short. But the government itself was equally unconcerned about time constraints. As midnight approached,Minister for Personnel V. Narayanasamy was intent on filibustering,insisting on re-reading various sections of the bill.

The Congress argues its tactics were a legitimate means of preventing the opposition from defeating the bill. The bill would have had to be sent back to Lok Sabha with the new amendments. The ruling party accuses the opposition of opportunistically trying to scuttle the bill because it hopes to benefit from a continued confrontation between the government and Anna Hazare. The Jan Lokpal activists were themselves reportedly active behind the scenes in trying to prevent the bill’s passage,since it fell far short of their expectations,particularly the demand for the CBI to be under the Lokpal.

Admittedly,the government did not come up with the bill of its own volition. Fear of public opinion was the real motivator. Privately,all politicians were anxious to make the point that if some of Hazare’s rather wooly-headed suggestions were indeed to be implemented,it would challenge the supremacy of Parliament,bestow unbridled power on a few unelected do-gooders and create an administrative nightmare.

Significantly,the government,while accepting several of Hazare’s suggestions,inserted some clauses of its own,without due consultation with the opposition and its own allies. Even though these last-minute additions were bound to create problems,the government was unyielding. It must surely have realised that citing the provisions of Article 253 for setting up state Lokayuktas would not be acceptable to regional parties. Suggesting that the Lokpal have constitutional status,when the ruling party lacked even a simple majority in Rajya Sabha,was a certain dead end. The clause that the Lokpal composition should ensure minority representation was contentious. Abhishek Singhvi further confused the issue by claiming that the suggestion was recommendatory,not mandatory. These unnecessary additions muddied the waters when the government’s focus should have been on ensuring the bill’s passage. The government’s display of confidence,before the bill was taken up in Rajya Sabha,turned out to be a charade. The numbers simply did not add up. It worked to a plan. Instead of taking up the bill on the day following its passage in Lok Sabha,the government brought the bill in Rajya Sabha on the last day and then cited shortage of time. Actually,despite public expressions of outrage,there seems to have been a collective sigh of relief in Parliament over the failure to impose an anti-graft ombudsman on our system of governance.

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