On the eve of the winter session of Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to the Opposition, seeking their support for the smooth functioning of the House.
He told them he had asked the Environment Minister to brief them on the stand India was going to take at the climate change summit in Paris, and that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley would discuss the goods and services tax (GST) bill with them.
The government made it clear that while it was ready for a discussion on the issue of “growing intolerance”, there could not be a House resolution condemning such incidents.
Although the all-party meeting convened Wednesday by the government — the Prime Minister joined the meeting attended by top leaders of the Opposition — was a “cordial” affair, there were enough indications that the knives would be out on the very first day of the session.
The Congress and other Opposition parties, including the Left and JD(U), are gearing to corner the government, utilising a discussion on the Constitution to mark the 125th birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar.
Jaitley was present at the all-party meeting and so was Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
Hours after the meet, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, fired the first salvo, calling the government “intolerant”. He said in the past too, individuals had made provocative statements but there had been action.
“But now, there is no action against leaders, MLAs and ministers… The ruling party is just listening and not taking any action. It is very dangerous for the country. So, it is not that the nation is not tolerant or the majority community is not tolerant… They are all tolerant, but the government or the party which constitutes the government, that is intolerant,” Azad said.
The Congress does not, however, appear to be supporting the demand of the Left parties that Parliament pass a resolution condemning the acts of intolerance. The Congress wants a discussion and a reply from the Prime Minister on the issue.
At the all-party meeting, Azad and Mallikarjun Kharge insisted that the resolution to be passed at the end of the two-debate on Constitution be moved by the chair and not by the government. The government agreed and the Congress hopes the wording of the resolution, which it said should be an “unanimously agreed one”, could be used to rap the government.
On the GST bill, the Congress said it was all for it and declared its willingness to talk to the government.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu said Jaitley would speak to the Congress and other parties in the next couple of days to find a breakthrough. The Congress has brought down its list of demands from eight to three. The Congress is in a spot as it cannot be seen as blocking a reform legislation like the GST, which it had authored, and at the same time climb down from its demands.
It wanted eight changes earlier but sources said Wednesday that the non-negotiables could be three — it wants an 18 per cent cap on tax to be levied, scrapping of the proposal to levy an additional one per cent tax and wants formation of a GST disputes settlement authority specified in the bill.
“The bill cannot be lopsided. It should be in the interest of all the three — industry, trade and consumers. The government will have to address our genuine and legitimate concerns,” Azad said.
Modi walked in towards the end of the meeting. Naidu said the Prime Minister called upon all parties to collectively see that Parliament functions smoothly and effectively. Modi told them that the government was willing to take the Opposition along with it.
He told the meeting that Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had held discussions with the Opposition on the climate change summit and would be ready to meet them for further clarifications. He also informed them that the Finance Minister was holding discussions on the GST bill.
Modi asked all parties to “join together to have a fruitful and meaningful Parliament session as the people of the country are looking to Parliament for important legislations which will better their conditions.” Naidu said the “spirit of suggestions and discussions gave me certain hope that the winter session will be productive”.
But the government was not ready to accept the demand that the House pass a resolution condemning acts of intolerance. Naidu said though the government does not agree with the perception that intolerance is rising, it nevertheless was “willing to go along with the Opposition” for a discussion.
“We are willing to discuss all issues including the so called issue of rising intolerance even though the incidents happened were in the domain of states… We do not support or condone such incidents,” Naidu said.
“The government is particularly aware of the Opposition’s concerns over some unfortunate incidents that have happened in recent weeks including the Dadri incident, killing of Kalburgi etc. The government has condemned those incidents as they go against the traditional and highly cherished values of tolerance. Prime Minister also responded saying such incidents are sad, undesirable and unfortunate… I take this opportunity to reiterate that neither the government nor our party has nothing to do with such incidents of enforcing one’s views on others. We are equally concerned about such unfortunate incidents,” he said.
“We are wise enough to appreciate that development is possible only in an atmosphere of peace and harmony. We have a vested interest in pursuing the case of development beyond considerations of caste, creed, religion and hence, do not condone such incidents,” he said.
The winter session, which ends on December 23, will have 38 legislative items including seven new bills for introduction during its 20 sittings spread across 28 days. The government considers 24 of these priority — these include the GST bill, three bills related to replacement of ordinances and the real estate regulation bill.
In the BJP assessment, the winter session is not likely to be a washout like the last two sessions. The Prime Minister also met the BJP parliamentary party executive Wednesday which was followed by an all-party meeting convened by Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan.
Sources in the BJP said Modi suggested that Venkaiah Naidu talk to all Opposition leaders for the passage of key bills, including the GST bill. Asked if Naidu would meet Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi, the sources said “Naidu will speak to all Opposition leaders”.
Acknowledging that the government was paying a “huge price” for the “stalled legislative business”, a senior BJP leader said the party had asked its MPs “not to get provoked” in the House and “if there is an issue, let senior party leaders handle it”.