Photo Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
President Pranab Mukherjee flagged off the Budget Session on Tuesday with a joint address to both Houses, in which he said that Parliament was a place for debate and discussion, not disruption or obstruction.
Just before the session began, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the Opposition to utilise Parliament for constructive debates.
The prime minister and president’s statements hold particular significance for the Congress. Having held up proceedings in the last two sessions, the Congress is now under pressure to allow Parliament to function smoothly.
At a series of all-party meetings held in the build-up to the session, several political parties, including the Trinamool Congress, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, urged the Congress not to disrupt proceedings. Even allies such as the Janata Dal (United) have suggested that instead of needless disruptions, the Opposition should use the forum to pin down the Narendra Modi government and highlight its deficiencies.
The Congress has been accused of blocking the passage of important legislation, including the long-pending Goods and Services Tax Bill. Party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, in particular, has been singled out by the government for deliberately derailing efforts to do business.
For its part, the Congress claims that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government has not made any attempt to engage with the Opposition and forge a consensus on key bills.
But perhaps realising that its behaviour is generally perceived as being churlish, the Congress made the right noises on the eve of the session about playing the role of a constructive opposition. At the same time, however, the party made it clear that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that Parliament functions smoothly.
At a meeting of the Congress Working Committee, party president Sonia Gandhi declared, “Contrary to what the government has been saying, let me once and for all make it absolutely clear – we want Parliament to function, to legislate. The problem is not with us, it is with the government, which refuses to accept that the democratic right of the Opposition is to raise burning issues for debate and discussion. It is the government’s responsibility to ensure that Parliament functions.”
While it is veering around to the view that it should not unnecessarily hold up proceedings, the Congress is in no mood to go easy on the Modi government. The working committee decided that the party will reach out to like-minded political parties to corner the ruling alliance on a host of issues. “I think you will see a combination of a debate and hungama in this session,” a senior Congress office bearer said.
There is a plan in place. To begin with, the Opposition has flagged the prevailing conditions in educational institutions for immediate discussion, in light of the ongoing student unrest at Jawaharlal Nehru University row and last month’s suicide of Hyderabad University scholar Rohith Vemula.
The government has agreed to debate on the subject on Wednesday in the hope that the Opposition will cooperate with it in the passage of important Bills which will be taken up in the second half of the session. The Budget session is held in two parts – Parliament will close for a recess on March 20 and will re-convene on April 20. The session will end on May 8
The strident tone adopted by Sonia Gandhi at Monday’s CWC meeting indicated that a highly polarised debate is likely to follow with parties on both sides of the divide rearing to have a go at each other.
Listing the Modi government’s failures, Sonia Gandhi set the stage for an ideological battle. “To cover up its many failures, the ruling establishment has once again unleashed its divisive agenda by generating a wholly unwarranted debate on patriotism and nationalism,” she said. In an indirect reference to the JNU row, the Congress president accused the Modi government of muzzling the opposition, civil society organisations and universities.
Besides the BJP, its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, will be also be targeted during the proposed debate on universities and last week’s violence against journalists, students and professors at the Patiala House courts during the hearing of JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar .
Accusing the BJP of a planned attack on the freedom expression, Sonia Gandhi further charged, “Educational institutions are not only the target, but have been a high priority in the RSS’ nefarious agenda to impose their ideology in the universities and colleges.”
Speaking in the same vein, the Left parties, the JD(U) and the Nationalist Congress Party will be equally unrelenting in their attack on the BJP and the RSS. Among other issues, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be targeted in particular for not reining in party leaders and ministers for making highly objectionable statements.
The ruling BJP will resort to fighting fire with fire. Believing it has the edge over its political opponents on the issue of nationalism, the BJP readily agreed to debate the JNU row on the second day of the session.
“The government is committed to upholding the Constitution in letter and spirit and firmly believes in peace, unity and integration of the nation as the key operational principles for delivering on the development promised to the people,” said Parliamentary Affairs Minister M.Venkaiah Naidu, indirectly charting out the contours of his party’s response.
The party’s legislative agenda will have to wait till the second half of the Budget Session, although the opposition has not given any firm indication about its cooperation in the passage of Bills. The short first half will be devoted to the presentation and discussion on the rail and Union budgets and the debate on the motion of thanks to the President.