Lokpal war: Mamata firm on amendment, wants Lokayuktas clause dropped

New Delhi:  As the government preps for a tough battle in the Rajya Sabha over the anti-corruption Lokpal Bill, the focal point of its concern is a key partner, Mamata Banerjee. She wants 14 pages of the bill which deal with Lokayuktas or anti-corruption agencies at the state level to be dropped because she believes this section violates the autonomy of states. (Read: Mayawati and Mulayam's parties walk out)

In the Rajya Sabha, the government is a minority. And opposition from Ms Banerjee would lead to a logistical and PR nightmare for the government. A meeting between Pranab Mukherjee, the government's main trouble-shooter, and Trinamool MPs yesterday evening failed to break the impasse with Derek O'Brien giving notice in the Rajya Sabha for an amendment to the bill. This places the government in political morass. (Lokpal Bill passed in Lok Sabha, but no constitutional status)

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.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said yesterday evening that he "hope the Rajya Sabha will pass the bill tomorrow". "I hope those having divergent views will respect verdict of Parliament," Dr Singh added, apparently referring to activist Anna Hazare who has said he will campaign against the Congress in the upcoming state elections as punishment for delivering a weak Lokpal Bill.

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. That reduced the strength of the House and the half-way mark the government had to cross. But another bill to grant the Lokpal constitutional status was defeated, allowing the Opposition to demand the government's resignation. "The PM has lost the moral right to remain in office," said the BJP's Yashwant Sinha.

To recover from the debacle, the government has to navigate a smoother journey for the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha, where it has fewer numbers. Even the simple majority that the Bill will need to be passed is a stretch in this House. The Rajya Sabha has a total strength of 243. The halfway mark for a simple majority is 121. Without the Trinamool's six, the UPA has 104 MPs.

Its best calculation is thus 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.

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 on Thursday.

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 Banejee'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.

Ms Banerjee has not been placated by that change so far. The government has been frantically trying to ensure that she is by the time the bill comes up in the Rajya Sabha. It bought more time today to work on its fragile numbers in the Upper House; sources cite "procedural delays" for the government not tabling the Bill in the Rajya Sabha today after all.

The day is being devoted to a flurry of negotiations. Parties like the BSP (18 MPs) and SP (5MPs) need to be convinced not to vote. Both parties cannot be seen to be openly strengthening the Congress - all three will fight tooth and nail in the UP elections in February.

The Opposition is also looking to unite. The BJP and the Left are said to have a broad consensus on key provisions of the bill - both want more autonomy for the CBI, for example, and are holding their own negotiations with regional parties that rule states, like Orissa's BJD. A unifying cause for the BJP and parties like the BJD could be the controversial clause on the Lokayuktas.

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