New Delhi: The ruling Congress has, a day after the Rajya Sabha approved the controversial women’s Bill, gone into overdrive to minimize the political fallout.
The immediate focus is to rally alternative political support by reaching out to independents to make up the numbers after the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) withdrew support to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Without the support of these two parties, which supported it without being part of it, the government’s majority is wafer-thin in the Lok Sabha.
The Congress has also been careful to tone down the rhetoric and has been conspicuously silent on any precise date on which it will introduce the Bill in the Lok Sabha, an indication that it is still looking to woo back the SP and the RJD. Failure to do so would mean that the government will be, as it happened in the case of the India-US civil nuclear deal, at the mercy of key allies, independents and the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The first test for the Congress-led UPA government will be on Friday when it seeks Parliament’s approval for the vote on account so as to meet its day-to-day expenses for the next three months till Budget 2010 is passed.
In the run-up to this, the Congress has already initiated efforts to rebuild bridges with the SP and the RJD and held discussions with Union railway minister Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief, who has said that she was upset over the manner in which the legislation was put to vote. While the SP and the RJD together have 16 seats in the Rajya Sabha and 26 in the Lok Sabha, the TMC has two and 19 members, respectively, in the two Houses. Thus far, there has been no indication that the SP and the RJD are willing to revisit their position.
Instead SP and RJD members of Parliament along with the Janata Dal (United), another opposition party, stalled proceedings of the Lok Sabha repeatedly, leading to its adjournment without transacting any business; they were opposing the Bill and the forcible eviction and suspension of their colleagues in the Rajya Sabha on 9 March.
Next step: Congress president Sonia Gandhi with party workers at her residence in New Delhi on Wednesday. Gandhi has so far remained non-committal on introducing the women’s Bill in the Lok Sabha. Subhav Shukla/PTI
A Congress leader who did not want to be identified said that the UPA would lobby the House to revoke the suspension as a conciliatory gesture, provided the offending members tendered an apology. The same person said both Congress president Sonia Gandhi and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had spoken to Mulayam Singh Yadav of the SP and Lalu Prasad of the RJD and to Banerjee.
Gandhi and several senior leaders of the party have conceded that the government took a “huge risk” by going ahead with the legislation despite vehement protests from several parties.
However, according to a Congress minister, who was active in Tuesday’s behind-the-scenes activities, the party faces no “threat” of instability for the time being. “We are confident that the Finance Bill and other constitutional requirements will go through in Parliament, because no party is in a mood to pull down the government and go for elections now,” added this person who did not want to be identified.
Jai Prakash Agarwal, a senior Congress leader, concurred. “We do not see any trouble for passing the Finance Bill and other budgetary requirements.”
According to one of the government’s three ministers for parliamentary affairs, the government foresees trouble for other legislation such as the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010, Commercial Courts Bill, and Judicial Accountability and Standard Bill, on which there are differences among the political parties. “The Bills can be defeated if there are differences. That’s fine with us. But we are ready to amend the nuclear liability Bill if they want,” the minister, who did not want to be named, said.
However, Congress leaders said the government would not try to rush the women’s Bill through the Lok Sabha before concluding crucial businesses. Even Gandhi, in an interview to NDTV 24X7 on Tuesday, remained non-committal.
The Women’s Reservation Bill will not lapse even if it is not passed in this Lok Sabha due to the character of the Rajya Sabha—it never gets dissolved like the Lower House. Even if the Bill is passed by both Houses, the delimitation process to decide which seat should be reserved for women, would have to be approved by Parliament. While the reservation would not kick in during the state elections due in Bihar later this year, the government can fast-track the process and if it succeeds in getting Parliament’s approval, go ahead with reservation for women in the 2011 assembly elections in some states.
The parliamentary affairs minister also said Banerjee, who had apparently been trying to mediate between the Congress, and the SP and the RJD, was upset about the passage of the Bill because “she genuinely felt the Left parties (her arch rival in West Bengal, that have been backing the legislation) would take advantage of the Bill. She was also angry that she was not informed about the decision to go ahead with the proposal to suspend the protesting representatives.”
He said the decision to evict the representatives and to go ahead with the voting on the Bill was taken at a meeting of the Congress’ senior leadership, which included Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, after they realized that there was “no other way to get it passed”.