He is only learning from the example set by the BJP when it was in opposition: that parliamentary decency does not pay
If she looked somewhat forlorn, rendering her “niji spashtikaran (personal explanation)” as Finance Minister Arun Jaitley gave details of the government’s hot pursuit of former IPL chief Lalit Modi, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj can take heart. After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted a link with the message “must watch speech by Sushma Swaraj” even though he desisted from sitting by her side in the Lok Sabha. For good measure, the Prime Minister also applauded Jaitley’s “sharp and pointed” speech on twitter.
While we are none the wiser over whether Swaraj’s facilitation of grant of travel documents to Lalit Modi was a “mountain”, “molehill” or a “molehill that does not exist”, we now know that she is adept at turning adversity into opportunity. Her jibes at “mamma” (Sonia Gandhi) and “daddy” (Rajiv Gandhi) may not have elevated the status of debate in Parliament, but she showed the Congress who is better at polemics and rhetoric.
After watching Jaitley so easily dub Rahul Gandhi an “expert without knowledge”, one is left wondering why a whole session was derailed before the government agreed to an adjournment motion on the issue.
The ruling party has since talked about a special sitting of the monsoon session that has not yet been prorogued to push the Constitution (122nd Amendment) (GST) Bill. Simultaneously, ministers and MPs of the BJP have taken to “educating” the masses about the Congress’s obsession with the Gandhi dynasty and Rahul Gandhi’s lack of talent.
The question is: Do we really need the BJP to point out the obvious? After all, it wasn’t so long back that people voted the BJP to its best and the Congress to its worst standing in the Lok Sabha.
No room for reconciliation
Indeed, if the purpose of the special session is to push reforms through a renewed thrust at passing the GST Bill, insulting the Gandhis is hardly going to help the ruling party. If at all, it widens the rift and makes any conciliation in the near future almost impossible.
The government seems to be optimistic about isolating the Congress and the Left, and passing the GST with the help of regional parties given that most consuming States — Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh — are keen on it. The Cabinet has thus decided not to prorogue the monsoon session, paving the way for a special sitting.
However, the math challenges this optimism. Even if it manages to get both the SP and the BSP, along with the TMC, NCP, BJD, AIADMK and DMK on its side (the possibility of the SP, BSP, AIADMK and DMK voting together is slim, although it cannot be ruled out), the opponents — the Congress, Left and JD (U) which is unlikely to vote with the BJP on anything before the Bihar elections — still add up to 90 seats in the 245-member House. It still makes it difficult for the government to collect a two-third vote, a prerequisite to get the constitutional amendment through.
Nevertheless, there is at least a semblance of a strategy in place to get crucial legislative business done. That brings us to the question of the near absence of a similar strategy throughout the washed out monsoon session.
Was it really difficult to anticipate the Congress vice-president’s objectives? Rahul Gandhi’s bid to establish his credentials coincides with the need to keep the Congress relevant in the political discourse. And he has learnt from the BJP’s example — that parliamentary etiquette has little bearing on a political party’s electoral fortunes. Congress veterans have accordingly taken to recalling disruptions caused by the BJP in the ten-year tenure of the UPA on crucial reform legislations — FDI in retail, GST, Insurance Bill et al.
They frankly admit that the lesson from the BJP’s success in May 2014 is that parliamentary decency does not pay. A commitment to reforms does not help you get votes as much as raising people’s issues do. This realisation eluded the Congress for almost a year till Gandhi’s tryst with destiny on his two-month sabbatical during the Budget session of Parliament.
His party had, till then, continued on the path of least resistance. The Congress supported the Insurance Bill in the Budget session this year after the BJP had blocked it for years in the Opposition.
As Congress strategists point out, it hardly earned them any accolades from the chattering classes who continue to celebrate the BJP’s success.
Gandhi has since decided to ignore criticism to wholeheartedly embrace the BJP’s dictum that “obstructionism is a legitimate parliamentary tactic”. With his newfound vigour, he acted like a prompter to his brigade of sloganeers — Gaurav Gogoi, Sushmita Dev, Deepender Hooda, etc. His friends in Parliament are young CPI(M) MPs from Kerala, or the elderly Saugata Roy of the TMC, with whom he is seen holding long parleys. The younger MPs seem delighted by this heady foray into campus politics in Parliament. Certainly, Gandhi’s objective is partly met.
While he was busy keeping the Congress in the limelight, the BJP appeared dumbfounded. As a reporter, one has been witness to the extraordinary floor management skills of parliamentary affairs ministers in different regimes, especially Pramod Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure, Priyaranjan Dasmunshi and Kamal Nath during the UPA regime, aided by Pranab Mukherjee’s near permanent status as the government’s interlocutor.
Their ability to reach out to different opposition parties, the everyday contact with key opposition members, and deft footwork helped respective governments during tricky situations — like the July 2008 trust vote when the Left pulled out over the Indo-US nuclear deal, or getting FDI in retail passed despite opposition from the BJP and the Left, and the TMC pulling out of the UPA. The coordination skills of a Pramod Mahajan or Kamal Nath could always be depended on to approach the forever amenable Mayawati of the BSP, or the SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Lacking a strategy
Sadly, the present government’s floor managers were either not authorised, or too confounded by the Congress protests to device a coherent strategy. Towards the fag end, when they seemed to have reached out to Mulayam Singh Yadav, the move was scuttled when the Prime Minister praised him in the BJP’s parliamentary party.
Getting public praise from Modi was probably the last thing Yadav was aspiring for; barely hours later, he sat ashen-faced while his MPs trooped into the well. To underline their distance from the BJP, they staged an impromptu demonstration at the main gate of Parliament House, demanding that data from the Socio-Economic and Caste Census be released.
One can only hope the BJP has a better strategy for the upcoming special session. After all, Rahul Gandhi was not the one entrusted with getting crucial reforms going or keeping alive hopes of a modicum of growth.