A Plague on Both Houses

The Economic Times, December 28, 2015

Can a government run without Parliament? After all, this is a majority government with no other pressing need to remain dependent on Parliament for its existence. Its legislative agenda has deeply suffered, offering meagre hope for any further ambition.

Its floor managers have failed to clinch any imaginative deal with the Opposition, which by itself ? mainly the Congress ? is determined not to cede an inch in the one space it holds some ground: the Upper House.

The session started with the right backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaching out to the Congress leadership, calling Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh for a cup of tea to push through the Goods and Services Tax (Amendment) Bill. And still, by the end of the following three weeks, the two parties stood more divided than ever. The ups and downs of this relationship have been no less bewildering than, say, the India-Pakistan conversation.

A Hindustani Lever

Just like that the National Herald case, the DDCA controversy and the Arunachal Pradesh crisis tumbled into the tea room, leaving no space for either side to manoeuvre. Diehard Gandhi loyalists within the Congress wore a smug ?I told you so? look as they eloquently made out a case as to why the party should not relent on GST because that?s, perhaps, the only lever it has with the government, which, otherwise, really doesn?t need the Congress.

On the BJP side, there is still no proper answer as to why a formal response was never given to Congress concerns on the GST. The ruling establishment may have concluded that it was a fruitless exercise once the National Herald case hit the headlines. But the government, especially when its PM has reached out to the Opposition, did need to show more urgency and energy in getting the Bill through than it actually did. Many were left wondering if the government was keen at all.

The PM, on his part, was understandably disappointed. Being new to Parliament, he has so far been reticent in taking the lead to get business through the House. This time, besides his reach-out to Sonia Gandhi, he even went up to Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who is the chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, to urge him to get some business done.

He was told that, contrary to what some of the government?s floor managers had suggested, Bills could not be passed in the din of the Lok Sabha. Rahul Gandhi reportedly informed the PM of a consensus reached some years ago in the House at the behest of the BJP, then the principal Opposition party, that no Bill would be passed in the din of the Rajya Sabha. Yet, it was because of Modi?s initiative that an understanding was reached for Rahul to intervene and call for an all-party meeting to get some Bills passed without debate.

It?s been a frustrating experience for Modi in dealing with Parliament, more specifically with the Rajya Sabha where the Congress has more members than the BJP. Each time he seeks to make an effort, he is reminded of what the BJP did while it was in the Opposition. The PM could consider laying down his own terms of engagement. But that may require him to openly distance himself from some of the BJP?s earlier actions in Parliament. That, in turn, may cause more heads to turn within the party, a consequence that comes with its own separate set of concerns.

The situation, as of now, is such that members on either side of the aisle have dug themselves in trenches, unwilling to move out but quite ready to snipe off any head that raises itself. A good example of the state of affairs was the Juvenile Justice Bill (now Act), where the government had reconciled to send the matter to a select committee, but the Congress did not move a motion fearing negative publicity.

Nothing Fits the Bill

In fact, no party wanted to make the first move even though a list of members to be part of the select committee had been drawn up. In short, no one wanted to be on the wrong side of the headline on December 16, including many in the ruling combine who favoured greater deliberation.

Broadly, any sort of meaningful parliamentary dialogue is absent. Old school politicians with long associations across party lines admit privately that they find themselves in unfamiliar terrain these days. The grammar of conversation, they say, leaves little scope for negotiation.

Rather, it ends up closing any window of hope like in the case of the GST where, despite the National Herald case, chances did crop up but could not be exploited by either side.

Either way, the situation has now reached a point where the government may just try once more for the GST in the Budget session. And if that doesn?t work, it may withdraw just like it did in the case of the Land Acquisition Bill.

More worryingly, this may prompt the executive to expand its space. Imagine Raisina Hill bureaucrats spending hours to proactively conceive ways to dodge Parliament ? surely, something not desirable. But with such entrenched animosity preventing any possible give and take, this new low now threatens to become the new normal in the government-Parliament relationship.

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