One-year pause on legislation, as UPA numbers play truant

Business Standard, April 05, 2010

The Manmohan Singh government may have to take a legislative holiday on at least controversial issues till the next Budget session.

Or it needs to get a lot more creative on coalition building.

The reason is that the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha, and has to depend on an unpredictable opposition for help in passing Bills. In the Lok Sabha, although it is larger, it can face some unpleasant surprises if not pro-active on parliamentary floor management.

The government has already had to apply brakes on at least one key legislation in the first phase of the Budget session ? the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill ? with the prime minister agreeing to correct all the ?flaws? in the Bill pointed out by the Opposition.

Bill State of opposition
Nuclear liability A united opposition feels suppliers should be accountable, have higher liability cap
Foreign University BJP, Left and others may find Bill elitist, likely to fuel disparity and compromise quality
Land acquisition Trinamool Congress is against government role in land buying
LIC Bill Opposition sees it as a ploy for future disinvestment
Insurance Bill BJP, Left against rescuing foreign players who lost fortunes in recession
Women?s reservation Bill Difficult to tame SP, RJD, BSP in Lower House
PFRDA Opposition parties, and a section of Congress, worried about political message of private players in pension plans of aam aadmi

The Insurance Amendment bill and Life Insurance Corporation Act (Amendment), currently under review of standing committees, also hold out no hope of early passage as the BJP and the Left are both opposed to these.

In the Rajya Sabha, the strength of the united opposition is at least 117 MPs, while the committed supporters of the UPA stand at just 100. Even if the UPA managers can get seven independent MPs on board, the government will not be in a position to pass the Bills it wants to, smoothly.

This logjam in the Upper House is likely to end only towards the end of this calendar year, when the Congress will gain more seats. The UPA managers are expecting to have the numerical upper hand in the Rajya Sabha during the Budget session of 2011. The Nuclear Liability Bill is also likely to resurface during that period.

The government is also adopting a go-slow policy on the contentious Women?s Reservation Bill that aims to provide one in three seats for women in Lok Sabha and state assemblies. It fears fierce resentment from the Samajwadi Party (22 MPs), Bahujan Samaj Party (21 MPs), Rashtriya Janata Dal (4 MPs) and a majority of the Janata Dal-United (20 MPs) in the lower House.

According to a government manager, ?In the Rajya Sabha, we could pass the Bill after forcibly removing eight-nine MPs from the House. In the Lok Sabha, it is simply not possible to throw out 60-65 MPs, including leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad.?

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the leader of the Lok Sabha, understands the importance of having the support of a larger number of parties for pushing legislation. ?We always try to consult various political parties before moving an important piece of legislation. The government will follow the same route in case of future legislation,? he told Business Standard.

According to top sources in the government, the Foreign University Bill, too, might face roadblocks. The BJP and the Left parties have been opposing the initial proposal of allowing foreign universities to open branches in India. Both sides are currently not talking on the Bill, as the government hasn?t officially come out with the final draft.

?It is purely an issue-based arrangement, as we don?t consider anyone politically untouchable. We are ready to join hands with the Left on whatever issues we are opposed to,? said Sushma Swaraj, the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha.

The Land Acquisition Act amendment Bill and its twin , the rehabilitation and resettlement policy Bill, has already been in cold storage and there is no chance of bringing it before Railway Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee knows where she stands in the 2011 West Bengal assembly election.

Banerjee, the biggest ally of the Congress in the second UPA, has forced the coalition leader to accept her demand not to proceed with the Bill until the Bengal elections. Since the Congress has already antagonised outside supporters like SP, BSP and RJD, it is more dependent on Trinamool.

There is also no word about the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill (PFRDA) in government circles. Top managers of the Congress say the Bill is not likely to be considered in the near future as even UPA allies are opposing it. The Bill proposes setting up a regulator and giving more freedom to subscribers to invest in pension funds. The Bill was introduced in 2005 by then Finance Minister P Chidambaram. But, the government couldn?t move ahead as the Left parties were opposed to it.

According to parliamentary sources, the BJP and the Left parties are set to oppose the Insurance (Amendment) Bill and also the Life Insurance Corporation (amendment Bill). The first bill seeks to raise the foreign direct investment limit in the sector from 26 per cent to 49 per cent, while the LIC Bill is to raise the minimum capital of LIC to Rs 100 crore from the current level of Rs 5 crore.

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