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Battle to shift to parliament

The two principal political parties – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – after the respective organisational revamp, planned in case of the former and forced in case of the latter, are now all girded up to battle it out on the floor of parliament. The Budget session of both the houses of parliament begins on 21 February and would conclude in the first week of May. In addition to the presentation of the Union Budget and the Railway Budget, the government has lined up a phalanx of legislative business to be transacted during the session, to give a prop to its pro-people image. Among the important bills lined for passage during the session are Lokpal Bill, Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill and the Land Acquisition Bill. The government has a clear political agenda to aggressively pursue the passage of these bills to address its both urban and rural constituencies. The Lokpal Bill is the culmination of the less than two-year-long agitation by Maharashtra-based social reformer Anna Hazare.

Though at one point, at the peak of Hazare’s agitation, the matter apportioned almost all the air and broadcast time and the newspaper headlines, it has now come to be viewed by people with a certain amount of susceptibility. The agitation has withered with a group led by Arvind Kejriwal pursuing political fortunes and Anna returning to his turf in Maharashtra. On the day when the government gave approval to Lokpal Bill, the one-time protagonist of the agitation Arvind Kejriwal did not even care to comment on the matter as he preferred to pursue a politically more profitable issue.

The Criminal (Amendment) Bill is a fallout of a more recent public agitation following the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus in the posh South Delhi district of the national Capital. What initially started as agitation of Left-leaning women groups caught the public imagination, especially of the youth, after the political leadership failed to adequately address the matter. The angry masses this time around refused to hand over leadership to anybody and sought answers from the government through action.

The government, after the initial trepidation, did manage to salvage the situation by providing best possible medical aid to the victim, flying her to Singapore, where she passed away, and relief to her family on one hand and speeding up the process of criminal justice against the accused person. It has now gone a step further by bringing an ordinance redefining crime against women and brining tougher provisions in the law to curb it. The ordinance, which stipulates death penalty in rarest of rare cases of rape, during the course of the session should get replaced by a parliamentary act.

The third bill up for passage is the The Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2011, which was re-introduced during the winter session itself. It seeks to replace the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Despite the   Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council pushing for the law for long, the Bill has been hanging fire. The original Bill was referred to a GoM in the wake of differences in the Cabinet over certain provisions. Opposing the consideration of the Bill during the winter session, BJP’s Rajnath Singh had objected to its introduction when the session was coming to an end.

The BJP on merit would find itself hard put to oppose the three bills. Though Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley has attempted nitpicking by questioning the government for taking the proposed legislation to the Cabinet as it was the property of Parliament, the fact remains that the government has conceded the Opposition’s major demand of keeping the appointment of the Lok Ayuktas in the state outside the ambit of the Lokpal.

Similarly the Criminal (Amendment) Bill which would replace the ordinance has gone beyond the recommendations of Justice JS Verma committee to include death penalty for accused in the rarest of the rare case of rape. The demand for death penalty for rape accused was vociferously raised on the floor of Lok Sabha by Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj. BJP has again been cautious in its criticism of the ordinance. The major criticism of the ordinance has come from the Left parties especially on the issue of not including marital rape within the ambit of sexual assault. Given the more traditional outlook of the BJP towards family, it’s unlikely that it would go with the Left on the matter inside the House. Even on the Land Acquisition Bill, there are not any provision which the principal opposition would find absolutely contentious and oppose its passage tooth and nail. Its consideration was deferred during the last session on the need for a detailed debate and not on the merit of content.

This has presented the BJP with a very unenviable proposition as it stands to become a party in the passage of the bills, the dividends of which the Congress would like to harvest in the general election scheduled for 2014. In case of it non-cooperating the BJP stands to face the charge of being an irresponsible opposition.

The escape route as of now looks to have been provided by Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s Hindu terror comment. As part of its floor strategy, the BJP has said that it would boycott all meeting summoned by Shinde as Leader of House in Lok Sabha. This has the potential to create a roadblock in the smooth passage of the Bills mentioned and also the two budgets. Who outmanoeuvres the other is something to watch.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is  consulting editor, Millennium Post
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