The Bharatiya Janata Party on Monday suffered a rather embarrassing set back in Parliament. In the Rajya Sabha, an important government bill suffered obstructions due to a prosaic error: several BJP MPs were bunking the House’s proceedings.
What happened on Monday
Thirty BJP MPs were absent from the Rajya Sabha when a constitutional amendment regarding the Backward Classes Commission came up. The bill – the Constitution (123rd Amendment) Bill, 2017 – had been passed by the Lok Sabha in April and sought to make the commission a constitutional body.
Yet, as it reached the Rajya Sabha, the Opposition took advantage of its serendipitous advantage in numbers to force a crucial amendment. While the original government bill had envisaged a three-member commission, the Opposition moved an amendment which provided for a five-member commission, with one woman and one minority member compulsorily part of the body. The amendment was passed with 60 ayes and 50 noes, reported the Business Standard. However, given that this bill was a constitutional amendment, the modified bill now needed a two-thirds majority to pass, a number which the Opposition did not have. Eventually, the bill was passed incomplete, without the relevant clause.
This is not the first time this bill has seen controversy
The bill was strongly contested by a number of Opposition parties in the Lok Sabha in April too. While everyone welcomed the effort to make the Backward Classes Commission a constitutional body, other aspects of the bill raised fears that India’s federal structure was being undermined.
The new bill not only made the Backward Classes Commission a constitutional body – it sought to fundamentally change how Other Backward Classes were identified, concentrating immense power in the Union government.
OBC reservations as they exist now
The current structure of OBC reservations flows form a 1992 judgement of the Supreme Court which ordered both the Union and various state governments to set up backward class commissions in order to identify castes that they thought were deserving of reservation. The Union government commission’s recommendations would apply to Central jobs and those of the state would apply in the jobs of the relevant state government.
What the new bill seeks to change
The new amendment decreases the powers of the state when choosing OBCs for state government jobs. While earlier, the state government had sole powers to notify OBCs in a state, the new amendment makes the Union government an equal party, specifying that the Governor and the President will decide the OBC list of a particular state.
In the Lok Sabha, this faced strong opposition in April, as state parties resisted the attempt to take away their powers. Yet, given the BJP’s majority, the bill was passed anyway.
Given that this amendment changes the federal structure of India, it will have to be passed by half of India’s state Assemblies. Yet, before that, it must be passed by the Union parliament with a special majority: both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha must pass it with a majority which exceeds 50% of the total strength of each house and is more than two thirds of members voting.
Since the Rajya Sabha amended the bill passed by the Lok Sabha, it will now have to go back to the Lok Sabha again. This back and forth will go on till both Houses agree on the same bill, after which it will then move to the states for ratification. Unlike other bills, there is no provision for a joint sitting when it comes to a constitutional amendment. “The idea behind this is to build a safety mechanism,” says Chakshu Roy from PRS Legislative Research, a think tank that focuses on India’s legislative process. “Hence the brute force option of a joint session is avoided here.”
The return to the Lok Sabha will give the Opposition another chance to highlight the amendment’s attack on state powers.