Sonia makes a grab for quota papers - and Dalit messiah status

High drama in the Lok Sabha. Members shouting slogans. Copies of a controversial bill being snatched from a minister's hand. So what's new?

What was new today was Sonia Gandhi's personal postscript to this scenario. She made a physical effort to snatch the papers of the bill for providing reservations in government promotions for SC/STs.

The Congress is overjoyed. Party members now believe that Sonia Gandhi has effectively established herself as a quota messiah for Dalits - challenging BSP leader Mayawati's pole position in this regard. Some Congress Dalit MPs, led by PL Punia, declared that Sonia had proved "today that she is the ultimate protector of the Dalit cause. We salute her for her special concern to the cause and what she consequently did today."

Sonia's one-up-womanship vis-a-vis Mayawati may make for good Dalit politics, but it may result in a new low in ties with the Samajwadi Party. The relationship may worsen as the clamour from Congress ranks for action against Samajwadi Party MPs grows.

Will the Congress be able to push through the quota in promotions bill? AP

Events unfolded at a fast pace as the Lok Sabha took up the quota issue at 3.30 pm today. Even as Minister of State for Personnl V Narayanasamy started reading the clauses of the amendment bill, Samajwadi MP Yashvir Singh, who is also a Dalit, came from behind and snatched the bill from the minister's hand. He then ran to the well where other SP members were already shouting slogans.

When Sonia saw this from her front row seat, she too got into the well and tried to grab the copy of the bill and reprimanded Singh for his act. Singh passed the bill to another party colleague, who dropped it.

While all this was going on, Congress's seven-time MP Vilas Muttemwar rushed to the well and grabbed Yashvir Singh by his neck and there were some unparliamentary exchanges all around. Some BJP MPs also rushed to prevent the scene from turning ugly - or so they claimed.

The general buzz in Parliament was that some action should be taken, but against whom is the question. Congress MPs obviously think it is the Samajwadi MPs who should be taken to task, but the  latter level the charge of man-handling against Congress members. Narayanasamy said the speaker "has to decide what action has to be taken. Madam went up there. It shows what importance Madam attaches to the bill. She was trying to prevent him from tearing it off."  Narayanasamy says he was taken aback by the SP member's unexpected move.

The bill will again be placed in the House tomorrow, when Congress and BJP members will be watching the final results from Gujarat.

The matter has now become a prestige issue between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. The latter has vowed not to allow the bill to pass.

In this confusion, the BJP does not know what to do. BJP leader Gopinath Munde condemned the SP's snatching act, but he also blamed the Congress for manhandling MPs.

The constitutional amendment to ensure that there is no legal hindrance in offering reservations in promotions for SC/ST employees has brought out the internal fault lines in the BJP. Members from Uttar Pradesh are particularly disturbed, since they depend on upper caste and OBC votes for their seats. This fissure came to the surface after the BJP voted with the government in the Rajya Sabha.

Leaders as senior as former party Presidents Murli Manohar Joshi and Rajnath Singh are vocal critics of the bill. There is also a palpable Rajya Sabha-Lok Sabha divide among MPs, a grim reminder to what had happened when the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha with the active support of BJP members. But party MPs in the Lok Sabha joined the Samajwadi Party and some others on the issue to prevent the bill from being passed.

Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath is one leader who is not mincing his words while opposing the quota bill. He raised the issue at the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting yesterday. He told Firstpost: “We had brought reservation in promotion for SCs and STs in 2002 and we lost the very next elections in 2004. The Supreme Court has given a clear verdict on the issue, rejecting such quotas. Moreover, state governments are competent to have a quota provision. If that is consistent with the law, where is the need for the Centre to have a constitutional amendment bill passed by Parliament? One should have been wiser after that (2004) experience. We also have to take into account that the BJP has a substantial upper caste support base. Our endorsement of the bill will affect us very adversely. Some of us will oppose it at all levels with all our might. ”

Another senior BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh pointed out that there was a demonstration in front of the party's state headquarters in Lucknow. He said ever since the party supported the passage of the bill in the Rajya Sabha, he had been inundated with protest calls from the state and outside. The nature of the protest can be summed up in one line: "How can the BJP support it? Doesn’t it care for the upper castes and OBCs?” He said some of the callers included IAS and IPS officers.

One senior national leader explained the BJP's support thus: "It is not just SCs, but also STs. We get substantive tribal support in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha and other places. Some of these states are going to the polls next year. Negative propaganda on the subject would not be good for us. This is also consistent with the Hindutva position on 'samrasta' (coexistence).”

The party’s deputy leader in the Rajya Sabha and chief spokesman, Ravi Shankar Prasad, yesterday admitted to differences in the party. "On the issue of reservation, yes there were discussions and different voices also came out. But the leaders explained that the whole constitutional amendment had been changed substantially because of the intervention of the BJP," he said. Prasad said the norms of efficiency (in governance) under Article 335 of the Constitution cannot be ignored even while giving promotions to SC/ST employees.

"Those who have been promoted (i.e. non-SC/ST employees) post-1995 will not be reverted. The government has given us an assurance that this being an enabling provision, the Centre will write to all states to ensure that the interests of those who have already been promoted will not be adversely impacted due to the amendment," he said.

Unlike the Rajya Sabha, where the government could have the bill passed after expelling a few Samajwadi Party members and then taming the rest, the Samajwadi Party's strength is far greater in the Lok Sabha. It has 22 members. If 11 MPs of the Shiv Sena are added and they decide to create a ruckus with some tacit support from the BJP, it would be virtually impossible for the chair to “put the house in order”, something which is essential in a constitutional amendment bill. Everybody has to be in his or her seat, the lobbies have to be cleared and every single vote recorded. There can't be a voice vote. For a constitutional amendment, a bill needs the support of two-thirds of those present and voting, and the number cannot be less than half the total strength of the house.

Parliament will see an extended bout of high drama tomorrow just when the Gujarat and Himachal results will be grabbing everybody's attention.