It was a busy day with an intensely fought high stake political chess board game that Parliament had to offer on Wednesday -- the last day, the last show of the first half of Budget Session. The issue in contention was Adhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016. The battle lines were clearly drawn as the Modi government had a steely resolve to get it passed on Wednesday while the Congress and Left carried an agenda exactly of an opposite nature.
The last time Parliament had seen anything similar was the Lokpal Bill during UPA II when Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari had abruptly adjourned the House sine die at 1200 hours, midnight because he contended the date had changed.
The way Modi government handled developing situations on the Aadhaar Bill suggest that its strategists and floor managers have become somewhat wiser. They sensed early the Congress and Left's move to press for amendments to the bill in Rajya Sabha, insist on a division (voting) and have that carried because they have majority in Upper House. The government had accordingly prepared its strategy for the last day. A packed list of business in Lok Sabha ensured that its members were present in the House till the end. In a smart move, the government presented the Aadhaar Bill in Lok Sabha immediately after Congress had forced amendments to it in Rajya Sabha. At around 6 pm Rajya Sabha pressed for amendments and at around 7.30 pm Lok Sabha took it up after hurrying through Mines and Minerals bill.
Since it was approved as Money Bill by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, it was beyond the authority of the Upper House either to reject the bill or stall it. The Congress and Left, which have reached a tacit understanding on fighting the upcoming West Bengal Assembly Election together, carried their bonhomie on the floor of the Upper House by choosing another way to trap the government. They proposed amendments to the bill.
The amendments were proposed by former Union minister Jairam Ramesh. Interestingly to a similar scheme—Direct Cash Transfer—proposed by the Congress in 2012 and 2013, Ramesh and other top Congress leaders including Sonia Gandhi and P Chidambaram had then hailed it as a "game changer". Now the game has actually changed, and so have Congress's position.
The Congress and Left could celebrate that it succeeded in forcing their amendments in Aadhaar Bill in Rajya Sabha but only for a few minutes because the Modi government ultimately had the last laugh.
It's a known fact that ruling BJP or the NDA is in minority in Rajya Sabha and the Congress and its supportive parties are in majority. The Congress has exercised their strength in Rajya Sabha to veto several other legislations passed by Lok Sabha. The number of members pressing the 'Ayes' button in support of the amendments moved by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh was far greater than those saying `Noes' from the treasury benches.
Yes, it was a moment of minor embarrassment just like the one it had to suffer when Congress forced an amendment on motion of thanks on President's address to both Houses of Parliament. But it didn't affect the fate of Aadhaar bill. With regard to Money Bill as provided in Article 110 of the Indian Constitution, Rajya Sabha's powers are negligible. Just that the Congress and Left's move to pass their amendments in the bill added to the work load of ruling BJP strategists and floor managers -- ensuring that Lok Sabha sat till late, deliberated on it and rejected the amendments made by the Upper House.
This whole process signified something more serious, at least politically. The Congress' insistence on pressing for amendments is indicative of the fact that had Aadhaar not been a Money Bill it would either have been defeated in Rajya Sabha or would have been stalled for indefinite period.
Although Congress and some other opposition parties objected to introduction of Aadhaar as a Money Bill in the Upper House, Deputy Chairman PJ Kurien rejected the objections. "We cannot give any judgment on what the (Lok Sabha) Speaker has done. The Constitution is very clear -- the decision of the Speaker is final....I am nobody to question the Speaker, neither are you. As far as I am concerned, this is a money bill," Kurien told his peers in Rajya Sabha.
What Congress should ponder is the fact that the division on its amendments on Aadhaar (76 for it and 64 against it) is a grim reminder that it represents only a fraction of Opposition (Congress and Left) and not for the whole or most sections of the opposition. The Congress's current strength in Rajya Sabha is 66 and enjoys the support of its current allies from different states. Among its allies, JD(U) has 12, CPM nine, CPI one, NCP three, RJD one, DMK four and JMM has one member in Rajya Sabha. On the other hand, the BJP has 48 members and a total count of its allies including AIADMK MPs take the number to 64. The BJP's floor managers should have managed better figures but this number game in the Upper House has another interesting facet.
The regional parties, which are ruling the states or are in serious contention to rule the state like the TMC, SP, BSP, even ally JD(U) and NCP didn't vote along with Congress in Rajya Sabha. They either walked out or abstained from voting.