Lokpal bill gets wobbly in Rajya Sabha

New Delhi : Two days after the Lok Sabha passed it, the much-awaited Lokpal bill appeared to have hit a political roadblock in the Rajya Sabha Thursday as MPs furiously debated its pros and cons.

As the day-long debate entered the night with the government and the opposition taking contrasting stands on key provisions of the bill aimed at combating corruption, the ruling party was hit by a numbers crunch.

Already outnumbered by the opposition benches in the upper house, the Congress seemed to have lost the vital support of ally Trinamool Congress over the bill’s provisions related to the powers wielded by states.

Fearing loss of federal autonomy under the bill, the Trinamool has moved about 40 amendments for a complete separation of the Lokayuktas, the state ombudsman, from the Lokpal bill.

Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Rajeev Shukla admitted to the hiccups.

“We admit we don’t have the numbers in the Rajya Sabha. But we are trying our best to get the bill passed. Our intentions are honest,” he said midway through the animated discussion that at times turned stormy.

Added a minister: “We are short of numbers in the Rajya Sabha.”

Speculation mounted that the bill could be pushed to the next session of parliament in February, disappointing the government which badly wanted to enact the legislation in this session.

In a house of 243 members, the government needs the backing of at least 122 to pass the bill. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has only 95 members.

As the Congress core committee took stock of the situation, Congress sources said it was talking to MPs in a desperate bid to build up majority support. But this appeared to be a daunting task.

The debate started Thursday with Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Arun Jaitley launching a spirited attack on what he said was the government’s failure to bring about an effective Lokpal.

“If you are creating history, let us not create bad history. Let us create an institution which is constitutionally possible,” he said, pointing out a litany of loopholes in the proposed law.

“You wanted to create a phoney Lokpal,” he said, looking at the treasury benches.

Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi hit back, accusing the BJP of dishonesty.

“If you don’t want to pass the bill, say so, and have the courage and don’t hide behind excuses,” he said in a speech repeatedly interrupted by opposition MPs.

“You are using conditionality as a pretext not to pass the bill. If you don’t want to pass the bill, say so.”

Bahujan Samaj Party veteran Satish Misra insisted that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) should be kept outside the purview of the Lokpal.

Marxist Sitaram Yechury added to the criticism, saying the Lokpal brought by the government could not overcome the country’s cancerous corruption.

Official sources said notices had been given for as many as 173 amendments to the bill, almost all of them from the opposition.

A key rallying point is the Trinamool Congress, which has six vital MPs in the Rajya Sabha and wants a provision on setting up of state Lokayuktas deleted. This found resonance with most regional parties and the BJP.

With political consensus not just eluding but parties at odds, on the final shape and powers of the Lokpal, Team Anna member Prashant Bhushan, himself a Supreme Court lawyer, despaired: “From whatever we have seen so far in Rajya Sabha, I don’t think the Lokpal bill will get passed.”

As for Anna Hazare, who started it all with a five-day hunger strike in Delhi in April, he returned Thursday to his Ralegan-Siddhi village, a day after calling off a three-day fast in Mumbai a day ahead of schedule.

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