For the second year in a row, an Opposition-sponsored amendment to the >Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address has been adopted by the Rajya Sabha. Last year, the >Motion of Thanks was amended on the issue of black money; this week, the amendment focussed on legislation passed by Bharatiya Janata Party governments in Rajasthan and Haryana limiting the rights of citizens to contest panchayat elections. Before 2015, there were just three occasions on which the President’s Address was amended in the Rajya Sabha, once each during the tenures of Indira Gandhi, V.P. Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The President’s Address sets out a government’s policies and programmes, and is first approved by the Union Cabinet. Should an amendment to the Address be carried through in the Lok Sabha, the government would have to resign. There is, of course, no such obligation in the Rajya Sabha, but it is still seen to undermine the government’s ability at consensus-building. For the members of the Rajya Sabha, it is a way to give notice that they cannot be taken for granted. It is therefore not just an embarrassment for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government to have faced this situation twice less than halfway through its five-year term. It also hints at the ruling party’s failure to reach out to the Opposition and forge a working consensus on the legislative agenda. With its clear majority in the Lok Sabha, the BJP may feel unencumbered by the need for floor management of the sort that ruling coalitions have had to work at over the past couple or decades — this week’s vote shows that its lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha does in fact demand an inventive outreach to the Opposition if it wants support on important Bills in the Upper House.
The first instance of such an amendment to the Motion of Thanks came in 1980 on the issue of engineering defections. The second was in 1989, when six amendments — including on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute and the India-Sri Lanka accord — were approved. The third occasion was in 2001, when the House adopted an amendment on the sale of a public sector undertaking, Balco, to a private company. These were all politically contentious issues. So was the issue on which the Opposition parties mobilised themselves this year, and it raises vital questions for democracy. Imposing curbs on who may contest panchayat elections based on requirements of educational qualifications and having toilets in homes effectively cuts the underprivileged out of the fray. The BJP could plead helplessness over its lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha, and instead cite the passage in the House of the Real Estate Bill this week as proof that it is getting on with its legislative workload. Or it could heed the spirit of the institutional mechanism of the amendment to a Motion of Thanks, and take up the subject highlighted for a follow-up debate in Parliament.