When the Opposition refuses to oppose

The Hindu Business Line, December 30, 2014

Somnath Lahiri, the lone communist in the Constituent Assembly, said during a debate that the objective of Fundamental Rights in a ?bourgeois national democracy? is that a political opposition must have full freedom to express its views, to draw its own conclusions and to say anything it likes.

?If I am in the Opposition or if someone else is in the Opposition it is certainly his business to say that the existing government is despicable; otherwise he would not be in the Opposition,? he said, defining the Opposition.

After almost seven decades, we now have a situation where the government hardly has any opposition, particularly on economic and policy issues. The principal opposition party, the Congress, seems to have taken the position that it will lend whole-hearted support to the government whenever reforms are discussed.

Consider the speech of the Congress? general secretary Madhusudan Mistry in the Rajya Sabha on the Labour Laws (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers by Certain Establishments) Amendment Bill. Mistry, a trade unionist, listed a number of problems with the Bill and said it went against the rights enjoyed by workers in the country. But, he concluded, his party had decided to support the Bill even though ?I staunchly oppose the content of this Bill.? And the Bill was passed in the Upper House.

Different scenario

A year ago, the situation was different. In the 2012 winter session of Parliament, both Houses discussed the proposal to increase FDI limit in the retail sector. The BJP was in the forefront of protests against it. Arun Jaitley, then leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, said young Indians would end up as sales girls and boys once this proposal was implemented. His party voted against the government?s decision in both Houses. There were not many differences in the speeches of Jaitley and the CPI(M) leader, Sitaram Yechury.

And this was not just in the case of FDI in retail. The BJP, as the Opposition for a decade, took a position similar to the Left on a number of issues ranging from the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal to the UIDAI. This has definitely helped the BJP strengthen its base as an opposition party.

The party?s campaign during the last general elections was pegged on the indecisiveness of the Manmohan Singh government even as it showcased the Gujarat model as the best reform-oriented government. So, a curious mixture of Left-leaning opposition arguments and promises of good governance helped it come back to power after its debacle in 2004.

In session

When in the opposition, the BJP took an anti-government position in Parliament, in the tradition of Indian opposition parties. This ended up making it seem anti-reforms. The party ensured an informal floor co-ordination with the Left on several issues, including the Pension Bill which it had initiated when the NDA had been in power.

What about this winter session? The productivity of the Lok Sabha in these four weeks is at 102 per cent, against the Rajya Sabha?s 61 per cent. Also, the functioning of Question Hour is 84 per cent in the Lok Sabha and 27 per cent in the Rajya Sabha. While 98 questions were answered orally in the former, 43 were answered in the latter. The Lok Sabha passed 17 and the Rajya Sabha 10 Bills. While 15 Bills have been introduced in the Lok Sabha so far, one has been introduced in the Rajya Sabha.

Two years ago, both Houses witnessed several hours of disruption on issues such as FDI in retail and women?s safety. According to PRS India, a research organisation, the productivity of the Lok Sabha was 53 per cent of the scheduled hours and the Rajya Sabha, 58 per cent in the 2012 winter session. Only six Bills were passed at that time.

When Left is not right

The Congress? decision to not toe the ?Left line? on the issue of reforms presents a new scenario in Indian politics. As an opposition party between 1998 and 2004, the Congress upheld its ?socialist? credentials in Parliament to oppose several reform initiatives of the NDA such as, for instance, divestment of major public sector undertakings. It campaigned against the Centre on issues such as agrarian distress and farmer suicides. The Vidarbha region saw more than 1,050 suicides in 2014. The principal opposition party is not in a position now to take up that issue with the government.

A considerable section in the Congress believes that taking a ?Leftist? position when you are in the Opposition may not win you votes. Citing the plight of Left parties and the Aam Aadmi Party, Congress leaders say that ?correcting? the administration rather than ?criticising? it can fetch you votes. An analysis by a section of the Congress is that the AAP?s decision to turn Left from being a rightist outfit taking the moral high ground was the reason for its weak performance during the Lok Sabha elections.

By projecting the ?socialist? Mallikarjun Kharge as its leader in the Lok Sabha, the Congress gave some indications that it may also go the BJP way. But the party?s performance in the last two sessions proves that it works with the government on policy issues ? risking unity in the Opposition. The hindutva ? or rather, the anti-hindutva ? campaign is the only rallying point for the opposition parties. Reforms may now be pushed without any major debates or discussions in Parliament as the non-Congress opposition in Parliament, including Leftists, socialists and the Trinamool Congress, are a micro minority. Two major regional parties ? the AIADMK and the Biju Janata Dal ? are taking a pro-government position.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi thus has a free hand to implement the agenda of the business class. He knows how to silence the Congress by throwing its own policies to them. Which means that reforms are also now a part of the ?majoritarian? agenda.

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