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BJP bails out government on pension bill


New Delhi : The government would have been left red-faced in the Lok Sabha Thursday but for support from the most unexpected quarter – the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – over a contentious bill to regulate pension funds in the country.

The BJP came to the government’s rescue when Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill was to be introduced in the Lok Sabha but many Congress members, including Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, were not present to support it.

Alarm bells rang for the government after the Left parties demanded for a division on the bill that would bring in private players in the pension sector and help reduce government spending on it.

When the bill – severely opposed by the Communist parties – was introduced, the attendance of the ruling MPs was very thin and the opposition benches were full.

The introduction was to be passed by a voice vote but Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Basudeb Acharia insisted there were more “Nos” than “Ayes” – meaning more MPs present were opposing the introduction than supporting it.

Acharia said: “We are opposing introduction of the bill. I am asking for a division instead of a voice vote.”

There was a brief commotion in the house as Parliamentary Affairs Minister P.K. Bansal, who introduced the bill in Mukherjee’s absence, said house rules state that any member who is opposing the bill has to make a brief statement giving reasons for his or her opposition.

The Congress’ Manish Tewari said that the rules make it mandatory for any member to give a notice to the Lok Sabha secretary general to oppose the introduction of a bill. The notice, he said, should be given by 10 a.m. on the day the bill is listed in the business.

But Speaker Meira Kumar ordered a division and electronic voting was conducted.

Acharia was heard urging BJP MPs to support him as only 159 MPs were present in the 543-member house.

With the BJP failing to oblige, the division showed 115 MPs supporting the legislation, 43 against it and one member abstaining.

The bill also proposes an empowered watchdog to regulate old age security. The present watchdog has been functioning without any parliamentary sanction.

According to Congress party leaders, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Mukherjee could not be present in the house during the bill’s introduction as the speaker had ordered the lobbies to be cleared, following which no member is allowed to enter the house.

The bill, originally proposed in 2005, had failed to get parliamentary nod during the United Progressive Alliance’s first term as the Left, which was supporting the government, had strongly opposed it.

The CPI-M accused the BJP of “bailing out the government” and said the main opposition party supported the ruling Congress on economic reforms.

CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury said: “On the issue of economic reforms, the Congress and the BJP are on the same side. As the principal opposition party, it was expected that at least to embarrass the government, the BJP would have voted with us. But by not doing so, they have bailed out the government.”