The Insurance Amendment Bill which is coming up for introduction, consideration and passing in Rajya Sabha today will prove to be the first big challenge to the Narendra Modi government.
It is the first big ticket reform measure that the government has taken up in more than five years, and which has to run the parliamentary gauntlet.
When UPA II had decided on FDI in multi-brand retail there was no need to get parliamentary approval. The BJP is resolved to usher in economic reforms in a big way to prove its credentials as a business-friendly party. An indication of this was given in the budget, but the increase of FDI in the insurance sector will test its determination as well as its ability to create some sort of consensus in the political class on major policy issues.
The two-month old government had a smooth ride in the parliament so far because no one was keen to challenge the government on the budget, and being a money bill, the budget did not depend on the vote in Rajya Sabha. It was sufficient to have been passed in the Lok Sabha.
The NDA does not have a majority in the Upper House. It has 69 in a House of 239 (present strength) members and 26 parties.
Opposed to the bill for various reasons, the Congress' position being the clumsiest of them all, are the UPA, the non-UPA, non-NDA parties, which command an impressive 114. It is the parties and individuals who are not on either side who could prove to be crucial because there are nine independents and 10 nominated members. It is quite likely that many of the nominated members could vote with the Congress and the rest of the opposition because they have been nominated by the UPA. But the Independents are not bound by the Congress whip. Each one of them will decide on his or her own.
Then there two major parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with 14 members and the AIADMK with 11, who have not yet made up their mind on the issue. Sources in the BSP and AIADMK said the final decision will be taken on Monday morning. Then there are 12 MPs from the Trinamool Congress which could go either way like the BSP and the AIADMK.
The BJP floor managers have a tough task before them. They will have to win over the fence-sitters who constitute a formidable 37 apart from the 19 Independent and nominated members. The BJP has been fortunate that seven of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and six of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have decided to support the bill.
A BJP member of Rajya Sabha speaking on condition of anonymity said it was possible to allay the apprehensions of the hardliners in the BJP and in the extended ideological family of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) because the FDI clause made it amply clear that the ownership lies with the Indian shareholders. He said the FDI in the defense sector too was raised to 49% on the condition that ownership lies within the country. The BJP insiders are not forthcoming on the differences within the party and the objections raised by RSS and organisations like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch.
Supporters of the Bill
Shiv Sena 3
Akali Dal 3
Republican Party of India (Athawale) 1
Nagaland People's Front 1
Opposed to the Bill
JD (U) 12
Samajwadi Party 10
National Conference 2
Kerala Congress (Mani) 1
Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) 1
JD (S) 1
Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) 1
Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) 1
Trinamool Congress 12
Nominated members 10