NDA blinks, reaches out to opposition

Livemint, February 18, 2015

The government has called an all-party meeting on 22 February to break the deadlock in Parliament that has derailed its legislative agenda.

Alongside, the government has also reached out to the Congress to seek its support for the passage of key legislation like an amendment to the insurance law to raise the foreign investment limit in joint ventures to 49% from 26%.

The budget session of Parliament, typically the longest, is set to commence on 23 February.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has a majority in the Lok Sabha, it is outnumbered in the Rajya Sabha. Consequently, like in the case of insurance, it has been denied legislative approval for a number of crucial measures.

If the government succeeds in winning over the opposition, it would lead to the passage of key legislation. Not only would it boost investor sentiment, it would also reinforce the reformist credentials of the NDA.

?There are six different ordinances that need to be passed in the budget session. We are confident that the government will be able to push its reform agenda. We have started discussion with the Congress party already and hope to get its support,? said a senior cabinet minister on condition of anonymity.

?It is the right of the opposition parties to oppose some of the moves of the government and the government is aware of the position of the political parties, but opposition parties should not disrupt the functioning of the Parliament and they should let the House function,? the minister said.

BJP leaders maintained that it was yet to discuss the possibility of calling a joint session of Parliament as an alternative to obtain passage of bills that have been held up.

After the humiliating defeat suffered in the elections to the Delhi assembly, the BJP seems to have lost some of the political advantage it had gained after it won the 16th general election and four assembly elections that followed. This, too, will force the government to be more amenable to seeking a dialogue to resolve the stalemate in Parliament.

The move to hold result-oriented discussions with the Congress leadership is significant because the government lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha. The NDA has only 57 members on its side in the House with a total strength of 245 MPs.

Senior ministers in the government elaborated that they were concerned about the lack of time in the first half of the budget session when the government wants to get most of the bills passed.

?There are only four working days in the first half of the budget session because there will be President?s address, debate on the budget, railway budget which will take most of the time. If the opposition parties disrupt the remaining time then most of the crucial bills will not get passed in the first half of the budget session. It is important that Parliament functions and there are no disruptions,? the minister cited above said.

The government needs to get crucial bills passed in the budget session to replace ordinances it has promulgated. These ordinances, including those on the insurance sector, land acquisition and coal block allocations, will lapse and will have to be repromulgated in the absence of parliamentary passage for the legislation.

Securing passage for the bills would help send out a strong signal to foreign and domestic investors that the government is firm on its commitment to push through its reform agenda.

The top bills on the government?s agenda deal with land acquisition, foreign investment in the insurance sector, mines and minerals, coal blocks, and the citizenship act.

Some critics have charged the government with bypassing Parliament by opting for the ordinance route.

?The government had passed these ordinances because it wants to send a strong message that the country cannot wait for major economic reforms,? said a second minister who also spoke on condition of anonymity. ?If we had not passed ordinances then everybody would have questioned us that we are not serious. Why wait for bills to be passed, why should we delay it further? Passing the ordinances was a strong message that the country cannot wait any more.?

The Congress, meanwhile, warned that the government shouldn?t take its support for granted.

?We have certain concerns and our stand on certain crucial issues, especially attempts by the government to dilute the land acquisition bill, will not change. The Congress party cannot allow dilution of the land acquisition bill,? said P.C. Chacko, senior Congress leader.

The government used the ordinance route to amend the land acquisition bill to make it easier for industries to acquire land.

Simultaneously the government is also in dialogue with Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik?s Biju Janata Dal, which has seven members in the Rajya Sabha; the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, with 11 MPs; and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which has four MPs.

At the same time the government is hopeful that the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) would lend support to some of the crucial bills because it has 10 MPs in the upper House who can tilt the balance in the NDA?s favour; it has also reached out to the Samajwadi Party (SP) that has 15 MPs in the Rajya Sabha.

?We are talking to BSP, SP and DMK. We know that SP has joined hands with Janata Dal (United) to oppose some of the bills. Political parties in a democracy can be rivals but we are not enemies and there is no reason why we should not seek help from political parties that are opposed to BJP in various states,? the cabinet minister cited in the first instance added.

Political analysts say that holding discussion with opposition parties before the Parliament session is the only way out of a potential logjam for the government.

?This is the only way forward to get crucial bills passed because the NDA is short of numbers in Rajya Sabha. This IS also the logical step forward because the only other way is to hold a joint sitting of Parliament,? said A.K. Verma, a Kanpur-based political analyst who is also Uttar Pradesh state coordinator of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

?Reaching out to opposition parties is a positive development before the Parliament session because it shows that government is trying to reach an understanding with the opposition. If the government doesn?t hold discussions with opposition parties then it will face the same problem before every Parliament session,? Verma added.

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