Oppn losing its bite in Rajya Sabha, NDA goes ahead with RTI bill debate
A rapid depletion in the opposition ranks over the last several months paid off for the ruling BJP-led national coalition on Thursday when it was able to start the debate on a set of changes to the right to information that the opposition insists were designed the hurt the transparency initiative.
A resolution moved by a group of opposition to send the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2019 for scrutiny by a Select Committee of lawmakers wasn’t successful in stopping Rajya Sabha from considering passage of the Bill.
The amendments moved by the government pertain to the tenure, allowances, and the terms of service of information commissioners. The existing law mandates a fixed five-year term, and equates the status of the information watchdog to that of election commissioners.
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As the debate progressed, it was clear that the BJP had been able to reach out to some of the non-NDA parties – often seen as fence sitters – such as Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress, K Chandrashekhar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal. The two parties have votes in the 240-member Rajya Sabha where the BJP is the largest group with 78 seats.
The BJD’s Sasmit Patra made his stand clear early in his maiden speech when he underlined that his party had some reservations about the bill and was looking for some firm assurance from the government that there would be no detrimental impact on the working of the law due to the amendments and the federal structure wouldn’t be compromised.
V Vijayasai Reddy of the YSR Congress, on the other hand, offered unqualified support to the amendment. “There is nothing wrong in this amendment bill… We support the bill,” Reddy told the Rajya Sabha during the debate that was punctuated with loud protests and disruptions by opposition parties.
K Keshava Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi accepted that his party had initially had objections about the bill. Rao said he had earlier demanded that the bill be sent to the select committee but had changed his mind after discussing the provisions with the minister Jitendra Singh. He told the house that he had been assured that the independence of RTI would not be impacted.
The extension of support by these three parties which have 16 MPs gives the NDA a clear majority in the Rajya Sabha to push through the legislation. If the government is able to broadly keep this template intact, it might not have to wait till next year to end its dependence on the goodwill of the opposition parties to clear legislation.
Rajya Sabha chairperson Harivansh had to adjourn the proceedings nearly three times through the day over protests against the bill. After the third one, the opposition decided to participate in the debate.
The Congress, Left and the Trinamool Congress, which have led the attack on the government’s bill, say the changes are designed to undermine the status of the information commissioners to get back at the organisation that had often exerted its independence. The Centre has also appropriated powers to notify term of office of the commissioners that information activists say, will give the government the power to get rid of uncomfortable commissioners.