A washout again?

BUDGET SESSION BLUES : In all likelihood, the first part of the session may be a wash out while the government could retrieve the second segment.

A washout again?
There may be a method to the BJP’s madness. Whether it will pay off electorally remains to be seen. On the eve of each session of Parliament, divisive issues are orchestrated to dominate the national discourse sidetracking development agenda of the government.

Several fronts are opened with monotonous regularity presenting the Opposition, the Congress in particular, with alibis to disrupt the proceedings. Since last year, the standoff has held up key reforms bills such as GST, Real Estate Regulation, Labour, Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code 2015, to mention a few.

Now, ahead of budget session, the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a dalit scholar of Hyderabad Central University, due to alleged discrimination by the varsity authorities and the “supporting role” played by Union ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani in the episode, the arrest of JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar on “sedition” charges, the beating up of students, professors and journalists in the Patiala courts complex by a group of lawyer-turned goons supporting BJP, have raised the political temperature  threatening to derail the two Houses at least for a few days.

The toppling of the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh and subsequent installation of a BJP-supported Congress rebel outfit with the connivance of the governor is  another  area of friction. The alleged involvement of Gujarat chief minister in a land scam (favouring a firm linked to her daughter) and corruption charges  against highway and transport ministry headed by Nitin Gadkari, farmers’ suicides are among a few other issues in the Congress menu.  

The first part of the session will conclude on March 16 and after a month-long recess, the second segment will commence from April 25 and close on May 13. Being the budget week (railway budget on February 25, followed by Economic Survey and the general budget on February 29), the ruckus will start effectively from March 1. In all likelihood, the first part of the session may be a wash out while the government could retrieve the second segment.

By the time the second phase starts, electioneering in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry will be at its peak and many members will be away campaigning. The government may then be able to push its legislative agenda.

The BJP is working on a strategy to divide the Opposition and isolate the Congress. It has already started a campaign dubbing Rahul Gandhi as “anti-national” for his support to students of Hyderabad university  and JNU.

The BJP is  calculating that the JNU  incident will help it divert attention and obfuscate its “anti-Dalit” tag unwittingly acquired after Vemula’s suicide. Though the party managed to change the anti-Dalit discourse to “anti-national”, the disclosure that the video showing Kanhaiya shouting “anti-national” slogans has been “doctored” may take the sting out of BJP’s ultra-nationalistic campaign.

The party is now working on a strategy to accentuate  the ideological divide  to expand its support base across the country by aggressively pushing its core, “nationalistic” agenda. The prime minister may be on board in this cultural war or he has been presented with a fait accompli by the powerful RSS. Narendra Modi has not made any serious attempt to reach out to the Opposition.

On the contrary, he was seen provoking the Congress. A few days ago, addressing an election rally in Assam, Modi, attacked  the Gandhis saying “one family” has been holding up Parliament. The Congress reacted sharply against the “unedifying” comment. Though, for the first time in two years, the prime minister convened an all-party meeting (on February 16) to ensure a smooth session, the gesture was not followed up with any meaningful action. 

The home ministry did little to contain the violent fallout of arrest of JNU students in the Patiala court complex. In front of the policemen, goons in black robes beat up journalists Tuesday last and repeated the feat with gusto on Wednesday sparking an avalanche of protests across the nation.

Carrot and stick policy

Modi, however,  is confident of weathering the budget session storm. A mishmash of divide and rule and a carrot and stick policy (read CBI) may work wonders. Two major Opposition parties, the Trinamool Congress and Samajwadi Party, have so far remained  silent on the JNU incident. 

The TMC, which had strongly backed the Congress on the National Herald issue in the winter session has since distanced from it. Mamata Banerjee is apparently livid with the Congress for agreeing to a covert alliance with the CPM in West Bengal. Similarly, the Congress-DMK alliance has also triggered a reverse political dynamic with AIADMK cosying up to the BJP.

The CBI had recently arrested NOIDA chief engineer Yadav Singh, who is close to Mulayam Singh over charges of corruption to the tune of Rs 954 crore while the Enforcement Directorate has launched an investigation into the reports that BSP MLC Mohammed Iqbal had amassed Rs 10,000 crore black money and floated several shell companies to launder it. It is not clear whether BSP chief Mayawati was aware of the extracurricular activities of the enterprising legislator. Normally, it is very difficult for anyone in BSP to hide anything from Behenji’s prying eyes.  

Parties such as the TMC, SP, BSP, AIADMK, BJD may play footsie with the government for some time. Nevertheless, attempts to shrivel the Left-of-Centre space,  especially in campuses, could spur a counter narrative. An anti-BJP axis led by the Congress, Left and the socialist bloc comprising the JD(U), RJD, DMK and a few others could coalesce into an alternative platform  before the next general elections.

The budget session could provide hints  to the changing political equations – from the fanatical anti-Congressism of the past to rabid “anti-BJPism” ahead of 2019. Modi has still time on his side to shift to a winning narrative – “good governance.”

(The writer is a New Delhi-based political commentator)

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