If Vajpayee could do it, why can’t Modi?

Hindustan Times, December 19, 2016

The winter session of Parliament, which ended Friday, was one of the worst in decades and, surely, the least productive since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office. The Lok Sabha could work for only 15% of the time allotted, while the Rajya Sabha worked 18% of the schedule. Only 10% of the planned legislative business could be transacted.

Disruptions in Parliament are neither new nor unusual as they are a legitimate form of protest for the Opposition. It is for the government of the day to find ways to address the Opposition’s concerns, persuade it to the negotiating table, and ensure Parliament gets down to doing what it ought to do — debate the issues of interest to the nation and make laws. Worries set in when disruptions extend to a prolonged deadlock, when dialogue between the government and the Opposition breaks down, when the space for trust and building bridges between the two sides begin to shrink rapidly. That is what seems to have just happened in the washed-out winter session.

Already, it has cast a shadow over the timely implementation of a unified goods and services tax (GST) — the biggest reform in the Indian taxation system that has a huge potential to drive efficiency, curb corruption and help accelerate the expansion of the broader economy. The list of other pieces of legislation pending for approval of either House of Parliament just got longer — the number is now touching 60.

Is there hope that the situation will change in the new year, when Parliament opens earlier than before? Or is this the beginning of a prolonged deadlock that runs the risk of grounding both Parliament and the government, as it happened in 2013?

It may be too early to predict either of the outcomes, but the signs are not encouraging. The dynamics of Parliament are primarily governed by three forces: The government, the Opposition and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha.

The government sets the agenda of the House. Therefore, ensuring its normal functioning is in its interest. But that wasn’t the case this winter session, when the treasury bench was seen stalling Parliament. In demonetization that is fast turning out to be a monumental disaster, the Opposition, — somewhat fragmented so far — has found an opportunity to close ranks and eye political dividends, especially in poll-bound states. The government’s refusal to get off the high horse and the tonality of the comments by some of its senior ministers haven’t helped. In such a scenario, the role of the Speaker becomes crucial. Unfortunately, the perception that the incumbent is not non-partisan has kept the Speaker from building bridges and restoring trust between the government and the Opposition.

What Parliament has been missing most is the absence of towering personalities on either side. In the past, we had such leaders in the Opposition as Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP, socialist Madhu Limaye, the Janata Dal’s Chandrashekhar and Indrajit Gupta from the CPI, who could defuse such situations.

When Vajpayee was PM, he demonstrated how the onus of upholding parliamentary traditions rested with the governing party. President Pranab Mukherjee played that role when he was a minister in the UPA regime. Today, we don’t have such leaders. Veterans like LK Advani to fill the void, but the BJP leader finds himself marginalised within his own party.

That leaves us with Prime Minister Modi. He must appreciate the gravity of the situation and work to bring normalcy, because the stakes are high and the risks are mounting. The GST experience, when the prime minister led from the front to build a consensus, bears this out. One still remembers the benign smile on his face as he listened to Rahul Gandhi’s strongly-worded criticism when the House debated the GST last year. In a democracy that rides on collective responsibility and consensus-based decisions, why should reconciliatory gestures from its leader be a one-off affair?

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