Double standards Congress will not profit by running away from reform

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Business Standard, November 26, 2014

The Winter Session of Parliament began on Monday, although it was adjourned in memory of the Rajya Sabha member and Mumbai Congress stalwart Murli Deora. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking outside Parliament, said that he hoped that the Opposition would work together with the government. A spirit of co-operation was notably absent in the last Lok Sabha, which was adjourned due to disruptions more often than any other in India’s history. The consequent legislative paralysis contributed in no small measure to the economic slowdown. Restoring India to high growth is one of the priorities of this government, and should be the priority of all responsible political parties. This will require them to come together in Parliament. Important Bills need to be passed. The goods and services tax (GST) amendment is high on the list. So is the insurance Bill, which aims to reform India’s insurance sector and will make a major difference to long-term finance in this country.

Unfortunately, it is far from certain that the Opposition will oblige as it should. The head of the parliamentary committee examining the insurance Bill, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Rajya Sabha member Chandan Mitra, has written to the chairman of his House asking for the deadline on the Bill to be extended to mid-December. The loudest rumbles of discontent are coming from the BJP’s erstwhile friend and ally, the Shiv Sena, which has clearly decided to take the bad blood following the Maharashtra election back to Parliament with them. But a bigger problem is the Congress. The party had earlier promised the government and the nation that it would behave responsibly and not indulge in the blatant hypocrisy of opposing Bills that it had itself introduced when in government. It now appears that it is retreating from that principled stance towards double standards. The party’s spokesman, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, indulged in a bit of equivocation on the subject: the Congress has no objection “in principle” to laws like the GST amendment and the insurance Bill, but that does not mean that the party was offering the government a “blank cheque”. The details would matter, he added. No observer could see this as anything but a distancing of the party from its earlier promises of co-operation.

The Congress will gain little from such hypocritical manoeuvres. It is, after all, a deeply unpopular party at the moment, because it was seen as doing too little that was constructive when in government. If it is even less constructive as the Opposition, then it can kiss any hope of recovering power goodbye. The disruptive tactics that worked for the BJP will not work for the Congress, since the BJP has pivoted smartly away from negativity and presented Mr Modi as a hard-working outsider who would get things moving. The Congress will have no such luxury. It is seen as being responsible for the economic mess; if it prevents reform from happening – for example, by insisting on an ineffective insurance Bill that does not permit the entry of sufficient foreign funds – it will be seen as being responsible for perpetuating the mess it made. Nor should the government escape criticism; it will need to reach out to the Congress, to go the extra mile to work together in a collegial environment, if it does indeed intend to have a productive session.

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