The Rajya Sabha on Monday passed the 123rd Constitutional Amendment Bill, which gives constitutional backing to the National Commission for Backward Classes, leaving only the President’s assent remaining for it to become law. The Bill had been the source of some embarrassment for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was unable to pass it in 2017 because it did not have enough members in the Rajya Sabha at a crucial moment. Its passage this week corrects that mistake and also gives the government an opportunity to say that it has done something for the Other Backward Classes.

This comes a day after Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah asked the Congress to clarify its stand on the Bill, claiming that it would reveal whether the party stood behind backward communities. Eventually the Constitutional amendment was passed unanimously, 156 votes to nil.

Here is what you need to know about the bill.

What is the 123rd Constitutional Amendment Bill?

The 123rd Constitution Amendment Bill gives constitutional backing to the National Commission for Backward Classes, which was first set up under the National Commission for Backward Classes Act, 1993. The previous National Commission for Backward Classes could decide on the inclusion or exclusion of citizens as a socially and educationally backward class. It could also hear complaints regarding the over inclusion or under inclusion of any particular backward class in the list.

The new commission gets constitutional status and more powers to address safeguards provided for backward classes.

What are these new powers?

Under Article 338B of the new Bill, the duties of the Commission will be to “investigate and monitor” the matters related to preserving the safeguards for Other Backward Classes and also evaluate how effective these safeguards are. The Bill also mentions that the Commission will have powers of a civil court while investigating matters. The Union and state governments will have to consult the Commission on any policy matters related to Other Backward Classes.

The Commission now also has powers to look into specific complaints related to the rights and safeguards granted to socially and educationally backward classes under the Constitution. To investigate any matter deeply, it has the power to “summon and enforce” the presence of any person from any part of India and also examine them. It can also demand any document, receive evidence on affidavits, obtain any other records from the court or police and also issue a commission for the examination of witnesses and documents.

The Commission will also be in charge of working towards improving the socio-economic condition of Other Backward Classes and also evaluating the progress in development at the Centre and state level.

Annually, it will present the President of India with reports that will include their recommendations on the implementation of protection, welfare and socio-economic measures that should be taken by the Centre and states. The President will then lay down these reports in Parliament along with a memorandum explaining the action taken or a proposed move on the recommendations. If any recommendation pertains to a particular state government, then it will be notified as well.

Who will be on the Commission?

Under the new amendment Bill, the Commission will consist of a chairperson, a vice-chairperson and three other members. The President will be in charge of deciding the conditions of service and the tenure of the office of all the members.

The government, during the debate, assured the Opposition that it would include a woman on the committee when it frames the rules notifying the Commission.

What happened with the Bill previously?

The Lok Sabha passed the legislation on April 10, 2017, after which it was sent to the Rajya Sabha. On July 31 that year, while the Bill was being debated in the Rajya Sabha, the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha moved to amend clause 3 of the Bill which sought to provide appointment of all five members of the Commission from the Other Backward Classes community, including a woman and a person from the minority community.

Because there were not enough BJP MPs in the House at the time, the amendment passed. But with the government unwilling to let the Bill as amended go through the house, the Rajya Sabha ended up passing the Bill without clause 3 altogether, forcing it back to the Lok Sabha, where the process had to start afresh.

On August 2, 2018, the Lok Sabha passed the a fresh version of the Bill unanimously while overruling the amendments in clause 3 suggested by the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha last year. The Bill was then sent back to the Upper House, which has now passed it. While passing it, the government assured the Opposition that the Commission would not impinge on the rights of states and their own backward commissions, which was one of the main concerns about the law.

What are the political implications?

BJP President Amit Shah said that the passage of the Bill was “historic”, and coupled it with the passage of a law overturning the Supreme Court’s March 20 decision to dilute the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given justice to the backward community, which was deprived of developments for decades since independence, with the legislation that grants constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes,” Shah said,

In addition to constitutional status for the National Commission for Backward Classes, the BJP has also moved to set up a commission looking into the sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes to ensure more equitable distribution of government jobs and other benefits. The BJP believes these two moves together should consolidate its support among the Other Backward Classes in general.

Abhiram Ghadyalpatil wrote in Mint that this move by the ruling party could potentially help them consolidate votes of the backward communities who comprise 52% of the total population, making them the single largest constituency of voters.