Govt suffers Rajya Sabha blow as 30 MPs stay away

Times of India, August 01, 2017

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent admonition over absenteeism in the Rajya Sabha, the Centre suffered severe embarrassment on Monday when the absence of nearly 30 NDA MPs, including half a dozen ministers, saw the opposition ramming through amendments to a bill to grant constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes.

The setback is mortifying for the government that has piloted the National Commission for Backward Classes Bill with an eye to wooing the politically significant backward castes. There were big gaps in the treasury benches with ministers Vijay Goel, Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Dharmendra Pradhan, Piyush Goyal, M J Akbar and Ramdas Athawale absent. The AIADMK ranks were missing as were Akali leaders such as Naresh Gujral.

Poor floor management resulted in empty front rows and the passage of a clutch of amendments that envisage representation for a woman and Muslim members in the NCBC.
The amendments also call for increasing the members from three to four, protection of states’ rights and ensuring all members of the commission are OBCs. As Clause 3 could not get a two-third vote as required for a constitutional amendment, it was dropped from the bill. When the bill was finally put to vote, it was passed by 124 to 0 votes. But crucially, the opposition sponsored amendments went through by 74 votes to 52.

The amendments were moved by Congress and are similar to the ones proposed by party leader Digvijaya Singh in the select committee that examined the bill. With Congress demanding that commission membership be restricted to OBCs, the amendments won the support of Samajwadi Party despite finance minister Arun Jaitley pointing out that the changes will be struck down by the courts.

The amendments were passed in favour of the opposition by wide margins. This meant that the bill as passed by the Rajya Sabha does not conform to what the government wants and will need to be sent back to the Lok Sabha for changes once again. As things stand, there are two versions of the bill as passed by the two Houses.

The missing members in the NDA benches was shocking as a three-line whip had been issued. The government seemed to have been lulled into complacence by the view that parties like SP, BSP and JD(U) were supporting the legislation. “The basic principle is that either you divide the opposition, or generate a consensus as well as ensure presence of your members. This was very careless floor management,” said a senior opposition MP. As the voting proceeded, leader of opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad persuaded key regional parties to oppose the government. The bill was finally passed after dropping Clause 3, to which four amendments was approved by the House earlier.

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