By Ishan Russell
If you thought the acrimony between the government and the Opposition witnessed during the Monsoon Session of Parliament and the subsequent Bihar elections would have abated by now, you are in for a disappointment. It promises to be a winter of discontent, with the Opposition rallying and the government also rolling up its sleeves to take the battle to them.
BJP’s Winter Session strategy
The first two days of this session are a special sitting to discuss and celebrate the adoption of the Indian Constitution. The debates will be initiated by the Leaders of the House and will culminate in the adoption of a resolution, which will be moved by the chairman of the Rajya Sabha and Speaker of Lok Sabha. CPI’s D Raja says, “Discussion about the Constitution and Dr Ambedkar should not be a ritual. Parliament must reiterate its commitment to social justice.”
Given the fact the Constituent Assembly had discussed issues like majority and minority rights, the conversation in Parliament promises to be quite interesting given its relevance even today. The government hopes this will also, to a certain extent, quell the demand for a separate debate on intolerance.
The key task before the BJP-led NDA government is to keep the reform momentum going, because this legislative business needs to happen. The NDA’s key reform measures such as the GST have hit the Opposition roadblock in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP’s numerical strength is just 48. And thus it’s imperative that the Opposition is either split or brought on board.
At Wednesday’s all-party meeting to ensure the smooth functioning of the house, for the first time since taking office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself spoke and reached out to the Opposition. Sources say that to get the Congress on board for the passage of the GST, Modi had reached out to the former prime minister Manmohan Singh some time ago. But Singh had directed the prime minister towards Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Since then, a conversation between the Modi and Sonia has not taken place on the matter.
One should place on record that both the Left and the Congress had given dissent notes in the Joint Parliamentary Committee on GST. But negotiations are on with the government remaining positive on meeting its April deadline for the implementation of GST.
How Congress is planning its moves
The problem for the Congress is how to make the voice of its 44 relevant in Lok Sabha and continue the momentum from Bihar at the national stage. This can only happen with a united Opposition. The Congress also understands that in the court of public opinion, which is still heavily tilted towards Modi’s reform agenda, it cannot be viewed as obstructionist.
One of the party’s Lok Sabha whips, Deepender Singh Hooda says, “We will play the role of a constructive and vigilant opposition and not stall parliamentary proceedings. But being a responsible Opposition, our duty is to hold the government accountable and ask relevant questions”.
The contentious issues
If the previous session was stalled over repeated demands of the resignations of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, this session her junior minister VK Singh will be facing the Opposition’s ire over his controversial statement over the Dalit killings in Haryana.
So it’s not just the intolerance debate, but an entire 13-point agenda that Congress will bring with it. This agenda details the following issues:
-Unrestrained and provocative statements of ministers and MPs of the BJP
-Price rise and food inflation
-Agrarian distress and farmer suicides
-Increasing communal tension
-Growing anxiety about shrinking of space for democratic dissent and dialogue
-Killing of Dalit children in Faridabad and Union Minister VK Singh’s subsequent insensitive remarks
-Increase in excise duty of petrol
-Foreign policy setbacks in Nepal and Maldives
-Women’s safety and security
-State of the economy
-Bank of Baroda scam
-Return of Black Money stashed abroad
-The outcome of the PM’s foreign visits
Most of these issues are quite generic in nature and most will see an apt response from the government, but a lot of criticism will also be directed towards the prime minister himself. While the attempt began mid-way last session, once its party vice-president had returned from his sabbatical, the Congress hopes Rahul Gandhi would continue the momentum in this session and directly take on the PM. While the BJP’s strategy towards Rahul has been usually dismissive, this time though party sources say every barb or jibe will be countered swiftly.
The government has consistently maintained that it is willing to debate and discuss every issue. Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu insists, “The ruling party is ready to discuss the issues of so called intolerance. Though the matter pertains to the domain of states, but we have decided that if the opposition insists, we will discuss.” But on this issue, sources in the Opposition say they will also seek a ‘sense of the house’ resolution, with which the government might not be very comfortable.
The root of the problem perhaps lays in the fact that communication between the government and the Opposition that has recently been driven more by media soundbites than actual conversation. And for now the relation between the two remains at best, frosty. So in India’s game of thrones (read: Indian politics), winter has come and right now it promises to be a cold and bitter one.