We need to celebrate the heroes of CAB – Amit Shah, Om Birla and Venkaiah Naidu. The first one is obviously our high-performance Home Minister, and master of the game.
The other two are underappreciated heroes, for it was their expert and firm stewardship of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha respectively that ensured a good debate and a clear outcome.
The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 (CAB) yesterday (11 December) produced three heroes (two of them much unappreciated) and one big winner: the restoration of debate as central to parliamentary democracy. The bill, which will become law shortly after the President gives it assent, is intended to fast-track citizenship for persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Buddhists and Christians in three neighbouring Islamic states of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
In both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, many parties and members got to speak, and the quality of the debate was high, with disruptions few and far between. There was the usual political rhetoric and booing, heckling and hissing, but overall the debates were a tribute to our collective ability to rediscover the argumentative Indians in ourselves. In the end, it did not matter who won the vote, but the people of this country got to hear all arguments for and against the CAB.
The only pity is that the courts may well get to have the last word on CAB, which would never have been the intent of the framers of our Constitution. India is well on the road to kritarchy, or rule by an unelected judiciary, and that is not good for democracy. At some point, the courts need to move away from making and adjudicating on the law. Their job is to decipher legislative intent, and not its correctness or suitability for India. But that is a story for another day.
Right now, we need to celebrate the other heroes of CAB – Amit Shah, Om Birla and Venkaiah Naidu. The first one is obviously our high-performance Home Minister, and master of the game. The other two are underappreciated heroes, for it was their expert and firm stewardship of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha respectively that ensured a good debate and a clear outcome.
Few people had heard of Om Birla until Narendra Modi chose him some months ago to become Speaker of the Lok Sabha. But through every Lok Sabha session until now, when path-breaking and contentious bills were legislated, Om Birla, with a sleepy smile and firm handling of the house, ensured that most sessions were productive. Not once did he lose his cool or control of the house. He kept both MPs and ministers in line.
This was even truer of Venkaiah Naidu, the Vice-President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP’s numbers were always below the halfway mark. During the CAB debate, many attempts were made to disrupt the proceedings through heckling and sloganeering, and – more importantly – through delaying and filibuster tactics.
As many as 43 amendments were proposed to the CAB. Most were presented not with an intent to genuinely improve the bill, but to delay the outcome in the hope that something will give. First came the effort to shift discussion of the bill to a select committee, which would have killed it by delay. Then came the demand for voting on each and every amendment proposed by members.
While those opposed to the CAB did not have the numbers, in demanding a vote count on every amendment instead of accepting the quicker voice vote procedure, they were essentially hoping that one crack in the wall on any amendment will give them an opening to scuttle the bill. The hope was somehow – through error or non-presence of some members – to win at least one amendment so as to undermine the confidence of the supporters of the bill.
But Naidu not only patiently put all the amendments through the voting shredder, but additionally junked all the frivolous points of order raised by the disruptionists. Even while giving many MPs the chance to speak, he penalised those who defied his rulings by giving them no additional opportunity to speak. By being firm, fair and willing to punish the recalcitrants, Naidu ensured an orderly house all through.
Naidu’s handling of the Rajya Sabha during the CAB vote contrasted sharply with the complete lack of control seen during the tenure of Hamid Ansari, who, despite having the solid backing of Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party, presided over a disorderly and often-adjourned Rajya Sabha during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) years.
The men who ran the two houses fairly and firmly are true heroes of our democracy.
The last, and final, hero is obviously Amit Shah. His capabilities were never in doubt, which is why the Prime Minister often leaves him to dominate house proceedings or get important legislation passed.
But Amit Shah was a revelation not only during the more crucial Article 370 vote in both houses, but during the CAB debate this week. His performance was exemplary in several areas, from the polemical flourishes he was able to bring to his opening and closing speeches on the bill, and for the clarity and conciseness with which he answered every query raised by every member on the bill.
In the end, few people in the house were left in any doubt that Shah had outclassed them not only in terms of numbers, but also in argumentation. The opposition did not have any point to make beyond claiming that CAB violated Article 14 of the Constitution, with mandates equality before the law and non-discrimination on grounds of religion, caste, ethnicity or race.
Shah demolished that argument by pointing out that the law allows reasonable classifications, and that CAB was not about excluding anybody from citizenship, but merely ensuring that the minorities who were persecuted in three neighbouring countries were given the necessary means to end their miseries earlier than the rest. Muslims could still be given citizenship through naturalisation in the normal process.
Equally important was Shah’s ability to ensure that some of the opposition parties joined the bandwagon despite political differences. This shows a huge ability to swing alliances through behind-the-scenes discussions and political bargaining.
Shah is the biggest hero of the day. He has won the battle for CAB. His real challenge though is to win the war, especially in the North-East, where there is huge anger over CAB, especially in Assam and Tripura. He has to move quickly to put out the flames spreading from Guwahati to large parts of Upper Assam, and from Agartala to the tribal areas of Tripura.