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Lokpal vote: The mystery of the missing Congress MPs

December 28, 2011 19:38 IST

Neerja Chowdhury on the various theories doing the rounds on why several Congress MPs we missing during the vote on the constitutional amendment bill.

The case of the missing 30 MPs of the ruling combine, who were not in the Lok Sabha when it voted for the Lokpal bill and the constitutional amendment bill, which would have conferred constitutional status on the Lokpal, was not only embarrassing for the Congress but it is also mystifying.

Though the Lokpal bill was passed, thanks to the walkouts by the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, bringing down the majority figure, this was not the case with the constitutional amendment bill, which got defeated.

The constitutional bill was Rahul Gandhi's idea pitched by him personally in order to ensure an effective watchdog which enjoys the status of the Election Commission.

Though the United Progressive Alliance does not enjoy a two third majority in the Lok Sabha, the defeat of the constitutional bill, having been brought before the house, was a setback for Rahul Gandhi.

The UPA has a strength of 277 in the Lok Sabha after the entry of Ajit Singh's five member Rashtriya Lok Dal, and the magic figure of the "two thirds present and voting in the House" required for the passage of the constitution bill was 288. The government not only failed to mobilise an additional 11 members, it could not even ensure the presence of all its 277 members.

Not unexpectedly this has given rise to various theories. The first is that the Congress' managers failed miserably to ensure that their entire flock was in the house when the voting took place. This despite the fact that the Congress had issued a three line whip to all its members to be present. This was also strange because MPs of the Left, Biju Janata Dal and Telegu Desam Party who had walked after the passage of the Lokpal Bill immediately came back into the house for they knew that the constitutional bill was to be taken up. Not so the missing Congress and UPA MPs. They did not come to the house. Even Dr Farooq Abdullah, a cabinet minister, was missing.

Members of the allied parties disclosed on Wednesday that they were not pursued by the Congress managers as used to happen in the past. And that there was a casualness in evidence. It is not as if the country's grand old party does not know the art of political or parliamentary management.

In the past members have even been wheeled in on stretchers to cast their vote in important bills. Mamata Banerjee when she was still in the Congress was once brought in a wheelchair, all wrapped up in bandages -- she had been beaten up -- to cast her vote.

Though the Congress has issued show cause notices to its errant members, the damage was done. It gave a handle to the Bharatiya Janata Party to go on the offensive -- that the UPA no longer had a majority in the house, and should step down.

The second theory doing the rounds is that there was a deliberate casualness on the part of those who should or could have managed things. Though Pranab Mukherjee met Mulayam Singh Yadav and leaders of the BSP before the house met on Tuesday and these parties decided subsequently to absent themselves during the vote on the Lokpal bill, facilitating its passage, the party failed to pay detailed attention to mobilising numbers on the constitutional bill.

This has raised questions whether there is an attempt by some in the party to do down Rahul Gandhi, and do nothing to smoothen his journey towards playing a larger role.

The third explanation is that the BJP let the government down. It was Sonia Gandhi who on Wednesday morning took the BJP to task for preventing the enactment of  a strong Lokpal by not voting for the constitutional dill, having promised to do so in the Standing Committee -- a charge rebutted by the saffron party who accused the Congress of not being able to manage its own MPs.  Sonia Gandhi was also giving a clear line to the Congress to take by way of an explanation for the setback to Rahul Gandhi's idea.

The question now arises whether the loss of face suffered by the party on Tuesday will alter its strategy in the Rajya Sabha when the Lokpal bill is taken up in the upper house on Thursday. Will it now put its best foot forward to try and get the bill passed and mobilise numbers as it would do if its survival was at stake?  

Till Tuesday the thinking amongst the party MPs was that having passed the bill in the Lok Sabha, they can now legitimately claim that they did what they could but did not have the requisite numbers in the upper house for the bill to pass muster.

Though the Congress leaders attributed the delay in taking up the bill in the Rajya Sabha to getting the President's signature as Pratibha Patil is in Hyderabad, the party obviously decided to defer taking up the bill so as to buy time so as to get its act together.

The Congress does not enjoy a majority in the Rajya Sabha. But the party -- and indeed the entire political class -- may acquire greater credibility if the ruling party and the main opposition party can work together, in a spirit of give and take, to ensure the passage of the Lokpal bill after 42 years. Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley had reportedly talked about this possibility if the government agreed to accepting some further amendments in the upper house.

If this happens, the bill further amended by the Rajya Sabha would have to be cleared by the Lok Sabha again. If the government does not agree to further amendments in the Rajya Sabha, it would have the option of either referring the bill to a joint session of Parliament, or letting the bill fall.

Neerja Chowdhury