The Jekyll and Hyde Parliament

Indian Express, May 17, 2015

During the Sixties, it was popular in Britain to use the phrase ?Jekyll and Hyde? politics to describe how the same party said one thing in opposition and its contrary in office. The idea was that parties behaved like reasonable angels in power and villainous devils in opposition. Or, if you like, the other way around. The point was that political parties were unprincipled in their parliamentary behaviour. The view also was that there was little real difference between the parties but still they had to pretend that the differences were vast and irreconcilable .

That is very much the logjam in which the BJP/NDA government is caught. It has been caught by surprise that an opposition which had been thought to be decimated with the Congress having won fewer than 10 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats should be so effective at delaying and denying its proposed legislation. The BJP itself had tried similar tactics during the UPA days but rarely so successfully. The problem then was the indecisiveness on the UPA?s part rather than any effective delay by the opposition. It got, for example, both the Telangana Bill and the Lok Pal Bill when it finally got round to introducing them.

The BJP has not been so lucky. It got the insurance and the mining Bills through in the Winter Session but since then its land Bill has foundered. This, however, should have been anticipated. The government showed its lack of experienced parliamentarians in that case. No one seems to have read the small print of parliamentary procedure carefully and blithely assumed that if the Rajya Sabha objects, a joint session of the two Houses would be the way out. The other side has had more experience and knew that it could stall but not vote down the introduction of the Bill itself in the Rajya Sabha.

The bigger surprise is the GST Bill. In the case of the land Bill, one could say that the BJP had signed up to the 2013 Bill. Of course the BJP in power is a different party from the one in opposition then. Even so, the changes are (quite rightly in my view) real in the new Bill. The GST Bill should have been allowed to pass in the Rajya Sabha by the Congress. Its opposition in that case is contrary to what is after all a genuinely consultative process which went into arriving at the Bill. But with the Born Again Rahul Gandhi needing to revive his career, Congress need to bare their teeth more often. It is a loss for the nation and not much gain for the Opposition.

The unanimous support for the Bangladesh boundary Bill showed that it is possible to take the Opposition along by giving them their due credit and making the outcome an all-party achievement. Sushma Swaraj is one of the few genuinely good parliamentarians the BJP has, Arun Jaitley being another. By mollifying Congress egos, Swaraj won and brought credit to the government.

Even so, the anomaly of the Upper House blocking the majority in the popularly elected Lower House should not be lost. In the UK, the Upper House being unelected, we know our limits. The Rajya Sabha is indirectly elected, representing the federal element.

But the cycle of election to the two Houses is out of joint. Thus those who represent state election mandates of the distant rather than recent past can block the wish of the most recently elected Lok Sabha. Whether anything will be done to synchronise the timing of elections to the Upper House as compared to the Lower House is anyone?s guess.

The larger issue is that urbanisation is growing both in absolute terms and as percentage of the total. Urban areas get under-represented. Yet it pays the politicians to pretend that the rural areas are the majority. That is politics. There is nothing else but hard climb up the learning curve for the BJP.

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