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farm bills: Covid, no opposition whip and absentees saved government the blushes on Farm Bills in Rajya Sabha

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New Delhi: Though no division of votes took place while passing the Farm Bills in the Rajya Sabha on Sunday, it appears that Covid and the Opposition parties not issuing a whip to its members- probably due to the pandemic- may have saved the government the embarrassment of just about managing the numbers to get the legislation passed.

BJP had issued a three-line whip to its Rajya Sabha members to be present and to vote for The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020 and The Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 on Sunday.

However, its ally LJP’s sole member Ram Vilas Paswan was not present as he is recuperating in a hospital. NDA partner Shiromani Akali Dal, which has three members, is opposing the two Farm Bills and its minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal has quit the Narendra Modi Cabinet in protest.

In a House of 243 (there are two vacancies), BJP has 86 MPs. Its allies JDU (5), RPI (1) were backing it. Among the non-NDA parties, YSRCP (6), Tamil Manila Congress (1), AGP (1), BPF (1), Independents (2) and nominated (4) had also expressed support to the Bill. This adds up to 107.

The half-way mark is 122 votes in the House of 243.

However, ruling parties usually manage the number by convincing the non-UPA parties to extend tacit support by staging a walkout or even giving “issue-based support” on certain Bills. While Congress-led UPA did it in case of Bills like the one allowing FDI in multi-brand retail, NDA has done so too in case of the CAA and abrogation of Article 370.

While BJP members underline that they would have managed the numbers if Deputy Chairperson Harivansh had put the two Farm Bills to vote, the margin would have been very thin. Passing such a sensitive Bill by a touch-and-go margin would have been bad optics.

BJP has reason to worry as BJD (9), AIADMK (9), BSP(4), Shiv Sena (3) and TRS (7) were opposed to the Bill. This adds 32 to the opposition tally. But some BJP leaders claimed SS and AIADMK would not have voted against the Bill. NCP (4) and SS reportedly staged a walkout in the din. This still gives opposition 20 more votes.

From the Opposition benches, some of the senior Congress members were not present due to the Covid pandemic. The list includes former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and Ambikar Soni. BJP leaders said six of the 40 Congress members in Rajya Sabha were not present. Similarly, some of the 13 TMC members, including Sukhendu Shekhar Roy, were not present.

DMK also did not have all its members in attendance.

Had the threat of Covid not been there and the Opposition parties had issued a whip, the government would have been faced with a tough predicament. A united opposition- with parties not staging a walkout- may even have meant government losing the vote.

Congress (40), TMC (13), BJD (9), AIADMK (9), SP (8), TRS (7), RJD (5), NCP (4), BSP (4), AAP (3), SAD (3), Shiv Sena (3), CPI-M (5), CPI-1, DMK (7), IUML (1), PDP (2), JMM-1, Kerala Cong-1, MDMK-1, JDS-1, LJD-1 and TDP-1 were all opposed to the Bills during the debate. This number adds up to 132, way above the 122 half-way mark.

This perhaps explains why Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad made the unusual request that the voting on the Bills be taken up the next day. Maybe the Opposition felt it could manage full attendance and give the scare to the government. Had the Modi government managed to pass the Bill with a whisker it would still be open to criticism on the grounds that the farmer related legislations do not have wide support.

But such full attendance is seen in the House only during no-confidence motions and when very crucial Bills are under discussion.

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