123rd Amendment Bill, 2017


Don't count your chickens before they are hatched. That's what the Modi government did recently—and ended up with egg on its face.

The Constitution Amendment Bill to set up new National Backward Commission came up before the Rajya Sabha. All parties supported the legislation, which would have been the 123rd amendment to the Indian Constitution. It was expected to sail through without a hitch.

Already passed by the Lok Sabha, it was all set to sail through the Rajya Sabha as easily as 1, 2, 3 as Union minister for social justice and empowerment, Thawar Chand Gehlot had bragged just a day earlier at a function in Bangalore.

It did not. It collapsed—all due to the Treasury's casual and over-confident attitude. It was a classic case of parliamentary ineptitude and lack of alertness.

Unexpectedly, an amendment moved by Digvijay Singh and two others got passed. The BJP and its allies were taken completely by surprise. Arun Jaitley, Muktar Abbas Naqvi were caught on the wrong foot.

They were bewildered, chagrined and red in the face. They reacted with stunned silence at first and then like schoolboys who had been snubbed. The usually suave Leader of the House came out with an angry outburst: "If this Bill does not pass, let the whole country know that the Opposition voted against the welfare of the backward Classes".

The Parliamentary Affairs Minister echoed him with a half-crazed threat: "For centuries this will be remembered that the Congress is anti-OBC".

Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad countered this angrily: 'This is a lie. We are fully in favour of the Bill. We are voting to get the Constitution Amendment Bill passed. Our amendment is clearly aimed at strengthening the Backward Commission. We want representation in the Commission for women and minorities. It is the Government which is anti-women and anti-Minorities".

Politics apart, everyone knew he was right. The Amendment was moved by Digvijay Singh, Hariprasad and Hussain Dalwai. It was a routine amendment which Members usually propose to any Bill. But this particular suggestion had enough merit to get passed by a 74 to 52 vote count.

Here lies the rub. The Rajya Sabha has a total membership of around 245. The BJP and its NDA allies have a strength of at least 90, which will soon zoom to nearly 120 in the wake of upcoming polls for the Upper House.

But the treasury benches were almost half-empty. For a Bill to amend the Constitution and—that, too, a legislation as important as setting up a National Commission for Backward Classes —the BJP's floor managers had not made any effort to ensure full attendance. They did not think it was needed. They did not foresee there could be many a slip between the cup and lip.

There is a German proverb—"One should not praise the day before the evening". In France, they say: "Don't sell the bear skin before you've killed the bear". In Italy, the adage is: "Do not say four if you have not got it in your bag".
What happened was this :
Till about 6.45 pm, the House was running smoothly. The Deputy Chairman P J Kurien was going through the procedural formalities of getting the NCBC Bill through. At each stage of voting the count was around 125 for and none against.

Then came Digvijay Singh's amendment. He insisted on a Division. The electronic scoreboard showed the amendment passed 74 to 52. Shock. Awe. Silence.

Even the Chair did not know what to do. This was unprecedented. A Constitutional Bill needs the support of two-thirds of members present and voting. But an amendment needs only a simple majority.

Legal luminaries like P Chidamba-ram and Kapil Sibal say that the Treasury Bench should pass the Bill since the Amendment strengthens it. Arun Jaitley at a loss to come out with a solution.

The Chair clarifies that Amendment should be passed with a simple majority and then the Clause containing the Amendment should be passed with a special majority. Kurien is frantically consulting his team of experts sitting on the desk below his podium.

The Chair then suspends the House for 15 minutes to enable both sides to work a way out. Suspended and not Adjourned he makes it a point to stress. Therefore the Lobbies would remain closed. So no other members who were absent can rush into the House. Because the voting procedure has already begun and cannot be stopped.

Utter confusion in the House. Chair repeats that the House is suspended for 10 minutes to enable the leaders across the aisle to try to reach a consensus.

More chaos as MPs on both sides start accusing each other for blocking the passing of the Bill. Chair raises his voice above the din and says he would follow the Rulebook strictly. He cannot stop the voting. The Digvijay amendment has already been passed and hence it cannot be changed. The Bill will have to be passed without the Clause III—because that Clause has been amended and is therefore in-fructuous.

The Chair asks Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot to move that the Bill which has been amended without Clause III be passed. The Bill is put to voting.

The Bill is passed with 124 yes to 0 noes. The Constitution (123rd Amendment) Bill, 2017 "as amended" is passed with required majority. The Bill has to go back to the Lok Sabha.

Rajya Sabha is adjourned for the day. The ruling party members are still ashen faced. They counted their chickens too soon and now have egg on their faces.

Vol. 50, No.8, Aug 27 - Sep 2, 2017