With polls round the corner, Congress wants to pass the Bill to get Team Anna off its back
New Delhi, 24 December 2011. Most MPs are opposed to the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011, which was introduced in the Lok Sabha on Thursday, just as they were opposed to the Women’s Reservation Bill.
But the Lokpal Bill stands a better chance of being enacted. Unlike the Women’s Reservation Bill, which had no support on the streets, the anti-corruption law has a powerful driver outside Parliament — the fear of Team Anna and its capacity to mobilise public opinion, especially among the middle classes, the covert political backing it is getting from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar — and finally, the 24X7 media coverage, especially by the television channels.
Even the non-Congress parties — including the Left, which made fiery speeches on the importance of maintaining the sovereignty of Parliament on Thursday and which have used various forums to attack Team Anna obliquely or directly — were lured by the promise of full television coverage into joining the public debate at Jantar Mantar on December 11.
Many MPs got so carried away by the heady atmosphere at the venue that they deviated from the stand they have been taking otherwise to be in tune with Team Anna. But in the sobering environs of the Lok Sabha on Thursday, they all stood as one, asserting the primacy of Parliament and the Constitution.
If Team Anna has been the driver for MPs across political parties, there is also a difference in the Congress leadership’s attitude to the two Bills. In the case of the Women’s Reservation Bill, while the Congress pulled out all the stops to push it through the Rajya Sabha in March 2010 to please its president Sonia Gandhi, it wasn’t willing to do so in the Lok Sabha, repeating the magic phrase — “the need for consensus.”
But in the case of the Lokpal Bill, the Congress’ stand is very different. Not passing the Women’s Reservation Bill was not going to be a vote loser, as it did not appear to have much resonance outside Parliament, or even in the media.
But if the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is seen as not doing enough to tackle corruption, it could adversely affect the Congress’ prospects not just in the five Assembly elections due next year, but also in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Its aim, therefore, is to get Team Anna off its back as quickly as possible, and the government is willing to do whatever it takes.
There is political will at the highest level in the Congress to get the Lokpal Bill through. Indeed, when the Opposition parties initially said they were not keen on extending the Lok Sabha session for three days, to December 27, 28 and 29, the government was firm, saying it was its prerogative to decide on such matters. It did not use the cover of the Opposition to push the passage of the Bill to a later date.
The UPA government, sources said, will strain every sinew next week to first push it through the Lok Sabha and then the Rajya Sabha. Of course, in the Rajya Sabha, it does not enjoy a majority, and could face amendments moved by the Opposition. If the Bill is passed with those amendments, it will have to return to the Lok Sabha for endorsement. If need be, the government is even considering a joint session to enact the law.
In the corridors of Parliament, the Lokpal Bill is being compared with the Women’s Reservation Bill — a Bill that most MPs, cutting across political lines, would be happier without, but are currently supporting, for fear of being labelled corrupt. Only the Shiv Sena has unequivocally opposed it, saying the enactment of the Lokpal Bill will lead to an authoritarian regime. The fact that the Sena’s Anant Geete was cheered from all corners of the House — unprecedented, perhaps, for the party — was indicative of the mood in the House .
Indeed, this underlying hostility to the Bill was underscored when the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad challenged the ruling coalition not to issue a whip to its constituents.
But a powerful external driver in the shape of Team Anna and the support it has whipped up on the streets are pushing up the Bill inexorably. The Women’s Reservation Bill, by contrast, has been hanging fire since 1996, though a majority in Parliament — the Congress, the BJP and the Left parties — are officially in favour of it. When it got through the Rajya Sabha in March 2010, it was after two days of high drama, the suspension of seven members — and some strong arm tactics by the UPA. It is yet to get through the Lok Sabha.
It would appear that the women’s groups need to take a few lessons from Team Anna in running a campaign.