With the land ordinance about to run its course, the big question in political circles is whether the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government would promulgate it for the third time. 

On May 13, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu had settled doubts by declaring that it will. But two weeks later, there was speculation again, stemming from the government’s uncertainty over whether President Pranab Mukherjee would sign the ordinance the third time as smoothly as he did on the previous two occasions.

The government finally promulgated it for the third time on Saturday.

Bu there is a lurking suspicion within the government, say insiders, that Mukherjee may take an adversarial stance when the union cabinet sends the land ordinance for his signature again. In recent months, land acquisition has become a hot-button issue, with the opposition besieging the government for putting industry interests before farmers’ concerns.

As per the delineation of powers by the Constitution, the President acts on the advice of the Council of Ministers. He has the authority to return an ordinance once if he feels it requires reconsideration. But if it is sent back to him for a second time, he is obligated to promulgate it. Relatedly, there is no explicitly bar in the Constitution on re-issuance of an ordinance.

Stickler for norms

Still, since this will be the third land ordinance, the government fears that Mukherjee, as a stickler for norms, may seek its justification, particularly because the government could not obtain parliamentary approval for the land law in two sessions. If he does indeed seek clarifications, it is bound to cause the government some embarrassment.

The government’s worry is not without basis. In October 2013 Mukherjee had withheld his signature on an ordinance meant to allow convicted lawmakers to hold on to their seats in Parliament and state legislatures. Instead, he sought clarifications from then Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath and Law Minister Kapil Sibal.

All this happened against the backdrop of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Left parties, Aam Aadmi Party and civil society activists demanding that the president reject the ordinance. As the controversy threatened to snowball, the Manmohan Singh government withdrew the ordinance.

Looking for a way out

It was on December 31, 2014, that the Narendra Modi government had brought in the first land ordinance. When this was about to lapse and the government couldn’t pass the land bill during the budget session, it prorogued the Rajya Sabha during recess and on April 3 promulgated the second land ordinance. This included nine amendments that had been introduced into the land bill passed in the Lok Sabha.

The Rajya Sabha resumed for the second leg of budget session on April 23. Since the Upper House had been prorogued during recess, the second leg was technically a fresh session for the land ordinance. When the government failed to get the land legislation passed yet again in the Upper House, it had to refer it to the 30-member Joint Committee of the two Houses.

An ordinance, if not converted into a law, lapses six weeks after the first session of Parliament begins since its promulgation. The first session of Rajya Sabha in case of second land ordinance began on April 23, which means six weeks will be over on June 4.

Updated: This piece was updated to reflect the fact that the ordinance was promulgated again on May 30, 2015, a few hours after publication.