Though Cabinet cleared it on Tuesday; that quota vanished from printed copies of Lokpal Bill on Thursday
The brouhaha on Thursday over the government's double volte face over the minority quota in the nine-member Lokpal Committee in the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011 left the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena isolated, a happy ending for the Congress. But the confusion over the issue left even members of the ruling party bewildered, with one minister saying the episode smacked of “lack of coordination.”
The Union Cabinet cleared a minority quota in the Lokpal committee on Tuesday; that quota vanished from the printed copies of the Lokpal Bill intended for circulation among the MPs. When discovered, some of the smaller political parties, led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal's Lalu Prasad, protested on the floor of the House on Thursday morning. Finally, the quota re-surfaced in the Corrigenda to the Lokpal Bill, that was introduced later in the day.
But what was the sequence of events? According to government sources, on December 15, when Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal virtually finalised the Bill, the minority quota was there. As the Bill was fine-tuned over the next few days, it remained, and finally, when the Cabinet note on it and the draft bill was brought to Cabinet for its approval on Tuesday, it was still there.
Subsequently, government sources told The Hindu that there were “consultations among Cabinet members” on the legality of the decision to have a minority quota as the Constitution does not permit reservation on the basis of religion: legal experts were also consulted.
These sources added that the decision to have a minority quota was thereafter “suspended for 24 hours” and “kept in abeyance”: eventually, it was put back into the bill, after the protests, as it was felt that “the diversity of the country must be reflected in the panel.” They also said that meanwhile, conversations with the BJP were continuing.
Sources said that while it was true that the BJP had made its misgivings clear to a government keen to get the widest possible consensus, there was also an opinion within the Congress that the minority quota could be problematic. In the conversations between the government and the BJP leadership, the issue came up at the all-party meeting on December 14, and again on Wednesday.
Mr. Mukherjee also hinted at the pressure the government was under when he told the Lok Sabha on Thursday afternoon, shortly before the Lokpal Bill with the Corrigenda was introduced. “[The] original proposal was to include the minorities. Thereafter, we held some consultations with various political parties. A question was raised about the constitutional validity whether it will be legally valid or tenable. Thereafter, there was further reflection on it. After that, it was decided that let us not sit on the judgment and let the judiciary decide whether it will be constitutionally valid or not.”
To the question on how a Cabinet decision could have been changed — even if it was for 24 hours — without going back to Cabinet, official sources said that under Rule 12 of the Government of India (Transaction of Business Rules), the Prime Minister could change a decision and then go back for approval later. Rule 12 says: “Departure from Rules: The Prime Minister may in any case or classes of cases permit or condone a departure from these rules, to the extent he deems necessary.”