Lokpal Bill debate in Rajya Sabha today

Lokpal Bill debate in Rajya Sabha today
New Delhi:  At 11 am today, the government takes its Lokpal battle to its last, and possibly toughest leg. For in the Rajya Sabha, which will discuss and vote today on the Lokpal Bill that the Lok Sabha has passed, the UPA is in a minority. The opposition is flexing its superior number power to say, do it our way. And then there is always ally Mamata Banerjee, who is adamant that she will seek an amendment to the Bill.

So on Thursday morning, the UPA government sees a day ahead strewn with tricky hurdles. The Opposition, say sources, has offered it a solution by suggesting that the government send the Lokpal Bill to a select committee after a discussion in the Rajya Sabha instead of seeking a vote. This is in keeping with BJP leader Sushma Swaraj's suggestion in the Lok Sabha that the present Bill be reworked, in two or three months if needed.

But the government, say sources, will not blink yet; it is confident it can sew up the numbers it needs to push the Bill through in the Upper House with a simple majority. The Trinamool Congress with its six MPs could make the critical difference and the Congress' chief strategist and troubleshooter, Pranab Mukherjee would be thinking deja vu as he continues to make eleventh hour efforts to get Mamata Banerjee to come around. Minister of state in the PMO V Narayanasamy confirmed that Mr Mukherjee was still talking to Ms Banerjee.

A simple majority in the 243-member Rajya Sabha is 121 ayes. Without the Trinamool's six, the UPA has 104 MPs.

Its best calculation today is to bank on parties like the SP, RJD and BSP to do what they did in the Lok Sabha - not vote. If the Shiv Sena and possibly the Trinamool also abstain, it would bring the strength of the House down by 37 to 206. And the halfway mark to 103. The UPA's Bill would in that case scrape through by a whisker in a vote.

Getting the obdurate Trinamool to abstain at best is key. For if the ally tips over to the other side and opposes the Bill, it would be touch and go. Then, the halfway mark would be at 106, two more than the UPA's (minus Trinamool) 104. "We have been talking to allies, supporting parties. We'll have to carry everybody to pass it...I am confident of some supporting parties," said Mr Narayanasamy.

After a lengthy debate, the Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on Tuesday night, but the vote thrust open the UPA's deficiencies - its weak numbers were compounded by poor strategy.
The Bill that creates a national ombudsman to fight corruption among politicians and bureaucrats skidded past the finish line, only because leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav walked out with their MPs.

The ruling Congress - red in the face because 12 of its MPs were not present in the Lok Sabha despite a party whip when the constitutional amendment bill failed - will also ensure that all its 71 MPs are present in the Rajya Sabha today.

Calculators out, the government spent a good part of the time it bought yesterday - the Bill was not brought to the Upper House on Wednesday due to "procedural delays" -- in trying to convince Mamata Banerjee to play ally in the true sense of the word. Pranab Mukherjee met Trinamool MPs, but that failed to break the impasse - the party's Derek O'Brien has given notice in the Rajya Sabha for an amendment to the Lokpal Bill. This places the government in a political morass.

If the move for amendment is accepted in the Upper House, the Lokpal Bill will have to be sent back to the Lok Sabha for reconsideration, since the bill that was approved there will have been modified. A joint session of both Houses could also become necessary. Mr Narayanasamy said with much hope in his voice, "I don't visualize that situation. I am confident."

The Trinamool wants 14 pages of the bill which deal with Lokayuktas or anti-corruption agencies at the state level to be dropped because Mamata Banerjee, who rules West Bengal, believes this section violates the autonomy of states.

In its original form, the  Lokpal Bill made it compulsory for state governments to replicate the Lokpal model with "Lokauyktas." During Tuesday's debate in the Lok Sabha, the BJP said the Bill's view on Lokayuktas is a gross violation of the principles of federalism. In a rare intervention, the Prime Minister offered a spirited defence, arguing that federalism should not serve as an impediment to combating corruption. But after an impassioned argument by Kalyan Banerjee, who is from Ms Banerjee's party, the government amended the language of the Bill before it was put to vote. Now, state governments have the right to decide whether to notify the Lokpal Bill.

But Ms Banerjee has not been placated by that change. She wants to make doubly sure that the autonomy of states is not challenged by taking off all clauses that make a mention of it - delete clauses 63 to 97 of the Bill is the Trinamool's demand.

And the Trinamool sees absolutely nothing wrong in putting its government in a spot at this point. Party MP Kakoli Dastidar said, "We've always maintained that in this federal structure, states must be given their due respect and taken into confidence whenever some major decision is taken. This kind of cooperation, coordination seems to be lacking presently."

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