Ashok Tuteja, Tribune News Service
New Delhi, December 27. Eleven hours after an often stormy debate, the Lok Sabha late tonight passed the Lokpal & Lokayukta Bill, 2011 after incorporating several amendments. The MPs continued to debate the other Bills related to Whistleblowers’ protection etc. even as the clock struck the midnight hour.
But the UPA suffered a setback, and a major embarassment, when the government failed to muster two-thirds majority of the Members present and voting in the House, which turned down the proposal to confer Constitutional status to the Lokpal.
The proposal to have the Lokpal as a Constitutional body, like the Election Commission or the Comptroller & Auditor General ( CAG), was first mooted by Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi. “It is a sad day for democracy,” said a crestfallen leader of the House, Pranab Mukherjee, blaming the BJP for blocking the provision. With the provision falling through, the Lokpal will now be a statutory body.
There was considerable confusion as the House dealt with the amendments clause by clause and as each amendment was put to vote. The most important of them related to the government ceding ground to the opposition, and some of its allies, and providing for specific approval by state governments before notification of the Lokayukta.
The government also agreed to remove the six-month ceiling on investigation and the provision which required the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to submit reports to the Lokpal. By yet another amendment, it was resolved to keep the defence forces out of the purview of the Lokpal.
However, several amendments moved by the Opposition, including one to bring corporate bodies under the purview of the Lokpal, were also rejected.
The House passed the Lokpal Bill by voice vote a little before 11 pm but not before several political parties, including the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Left parties, staged a walk out. The walk-outs reduced the half-way mark in the House.
The Lok Sabha thereafter took up the Constitution (Amendment) Bill to confer constitutional status to the Lokpal. The Constitutional amendments are required to be passed by two-thirds of the Members present and voting and with a minimum of 50 per cent of the Members being present.
What was expected to be a historic debate on the Lokpal Bill never quite rose to great heights in the Lok Sabha today.
But after an exhausting nine-hour long deliberation, when the Leader of the House, Pranab Mukherjee, rose to reply to the debate, he summed up the mood of the House by saying, “This may not be the best Bill, but it is certainly a ‘good’ Bill.” He went on to ask, “ Do we give up the good because it is not the best ?”
He pointed out that a separate agency is not required to remove the Prime Minister. “ The day the Prime Minister loses the confidence of this House, the Government will have to go; the moment 273 members of this House express their lack of confidence in the PM, he will have to step down,” said Mukherjee.
The Government, however, made it clear that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) will remain under the administrative control of the government. “ The CBI has been given functional autonomy but they are all government servants and are appointed by the government and hence a third party cannot be allowed to have control over their service conditions,” argued Kapil Sibal while the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh cautioned that the Constitutional scheme of things should not be compromised.
The Opposition parties, and also some UPA constituents, criticised the provision for ‘reservation’ in the Lokpal and called upon the government to ensure that the Bill does not force the states to adopt and enforce a Lokayukta Act on the lines of the Lokpal Bill. The government argued that the states had the option of improving upon the Act and that the Central Act would just be an enabling Act.
Kapil Sibal made the telling point that the states are largely responsible for issuing ration cards, running hospitals and keeping revenue records, where corruption is rampant.
The Opposition seemed in favour of buying more time with Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj demanding that the ‘weak’ Bill be sent back to the Standing Committee for further deliberation. She was supported by Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh, who cautioned the government against succumbing to pressure.
Several MPs, including a spirited intervention by Kalyan Banerjee of Trinamul Congress, wanted to know why it was so important to pass the Bill today itself. Why is the government in such undue and unseemly haste, one MP after another, asked.
Significantly, the Shiv Sena MP Anant Geete drew repeated applause from the House while he questioned the demand for a Lokpal. Reiterating his party’s stand, Geete declared that the Lokpal would not serve any purpose and that there was no need for a separate Ombudsman. Banerjee sought a role for the Parliament in the selection of the Lokpal on the lines of the US Senate, which approves the appointment of judges.