In and out of Pranab's war room
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- Published 30.12.11
New Delhi, Dec. 29: Adjacent to the Rajya Sabha, where the Lokpal battle was being fought, lay the real war room where the endgame was being scripted. No prizes for guessing the office belongs to Pranab Mukherjee.
Strategies changed every hour and deals were struck and reworked as the verbal duel continued in the televised show from inside the House.
Key players of the government, Salman Khurshid, Pawan Bansal, Kapil Sibal, V. Narayanasamy, P. Chidambaram, A.K. Antony and Ahmed Patel, kept streaming in and out of Mukherjee’s room through the day. The leaders of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, too, were brought in.
The first signs of change in strategy came in the evening when BSP leader Satish Chandra Misra came out from a meeting with Mukherjee and revealed that they were not going to walk out. Within minutes, Bansal was seen dragging Lalu Prasad into Mukherjee’s room and he too came out to declare that his party would not walk out. That was a clear giveaway that the Lok Sabha strategy was not going to be repeated in the Rajya Sabha.
The government was sceptical about its numbers as the Trinamul Congress had said its MPs would push their amendments. Hence the absence of the SP, BSP and the RJD was not going to help.
While the BSP, which has 18 MPs in the Rajya Sabha, said there could be no compromise on federalism, indicating that the decision to abstain as was done in the Lok Sabha could change, Lalu Prasad said: “We will do our best to block a weak bill.”
This triggered speculation about a possible disruption in the House during voting and the government’s desperation to somehow block the amendments.
Government sources admitted defeat of the bill was not a major concern but the passage of the amendments indeed was. The possibility of the government itself adopting the amendments sought by Trinamul was also being talked about emphatically.
Senior ministers refused to reveal anything. While a harried Bansal flitted between the House and Mukherjee’s office, muttering to journalists that nothing was final, an ever-smiling Khurshid repeatedly cautioned inquisitive reporters to be prepared to stay back till midnight.
But hints were consistently dropped by the Congress that the government would push for the passage of the bill instead of sending it to a select committee.
Many leaders, cutting across party lines, expressed ignorance about the fate of the bill but portrayed this uncertainty as the “strength and dynamism” of parliamentary democracy.
One senior minister said: “The government wanted something, the main Opposition wanted something else. The smaller parties, too, had their wish list. But what was eventually passed in the Lok Sabha was entirely different. That didn’t have anybody’s stamp. That’s why we say Parliament is supreme and can’t be dictated to.”
He said the government didn’t know constitutional status would not be accorded to Lokpal as the BJP had earlier supported the idea. The minister added that the government also did not know what shape the bill would take in the Rajya Sabha.
Even those who were in the standing committee that studied the bill dramatically changed their positions on the floor of the House.
Politicians call it dynamism of the parliamentary system and legitimate give-and-take in democracy. Team Anna calls it a “high command” culture.
Ironically, nothing that the Congress high command wanted is happening in Parliament; the party’s government had to bring the Lokpal bill despite serious reservations and accept a legislation which took shape in parliamentary complexities, not in their minds.
Congress leaders said it was in a win-win situation, no matter what happened to the bill as the message would go out that the government tried its best to make a Lokpal after four decades.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said: “The political establishment has to demonstrate both intent and substance. We showed intent by bringing the bill and substance by trying to give Lokpal a constitutional status.”
The Congress spokesperson lamented that the BJP opposed the constitutional status only because the person who proposed it first was Rahul Gandhi. He added that not passing the bill at all was undesirable as objections or infirmities can be addressed later.
Asked if Trinamul’s intent, too, was suspect, he said: “The regional parties may nurture a different political understanding which we don’t agree with but they should not block the bill.”