A sad commentary

A sad commentary

On the positive side, the just-concluded Budget Session of Parliament has been less acrimonious than earlier occasions with the Congress cooperating with the government in passing seminal bills like the GST and Aadhaar (though the latter was pushed amidst ruckus).

At the same time, there were some unsavoury takeaways — such as the government converting the GST and Aadhaar into money bills while including several changes in other laws into Finance Bill, all a sly method to circumvent the Rajya Sabha scrutiny, clashes between the Congress and the treasury benches over the “illicit” formation of Goa government, cow vigilantism, anti-Romeo squads enjoying BJP patronage, attempts to muzzle law (read misuse of CBI and Enforcement Directorate) and undermining country’s pluralist ethos.

The session also saw a departure from conventions — for the first time since Independence, the railway budget was amalgamated into the general budget that was advanced to February 1, instead of the usual dates of February 28 or 29 and consequently the finance bill could be passed without vote-on-account and GST rollout speeded up.

The electoral rout of key Opposition parties, the Congress, SP and BSP in the Uttar Pradesh elections, BJP’s landslide win and the entanglement  of Trinamool Congress leaders in two Ponzi schemes being investigated by the CBI, had a sobering effect on the anti-saffron bloc. The Opposition, which disrupted the House during the first part of the session over the controversial demonetisation drive, was chastened and subdued in the second post-poll leg.

As regards the GST bills, despite the bad blood, former prime minister Manmohan Singh rose above party politics and helped the government pass them without amendments proposed by Congress members. Senior leader Jairam Ramesh, who withdrew his amendments to a number of clauses, said: “Yesterday, the former PM advised me not to move the amendment because it will disturb the fine consensus that has been arrived at in the GST Council”.

Taking digs at the present PM, Ramesh said Singh had adopted “statesman-like approach” unlike Modi “who is a poli­tician.” After the passage of the bills, a pleased Finance Minister Arun Jaitley went up to the Congress benches and shook hands with Manmohan Singh and Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad.

The bonhomie, however, did not last long. The session ended on a discordant note as the government, using its brute majority in the Lok Sabha, amended 40 laws (having serious implications) at one go converting the Finance Bill into money bill so as to bypass the Upper House where the government is in a minority - NDA has only 74 seats in the 245-member House.

The Rajya Sabha discussed the bill for over five hours with Opposition demanding amendments to controversial provisions such as introduction of electoral bonds, end to corporate funding of elections to ensure transparency etc, the Lower House rejected their pleas.   

The Congress charged that inclusion of non-financial and non-money matters in the Finance Bill was in flagrant violati­on of the accepted norms and conventi­ons. Taking strong objection to it, former finance minister P Chidambaram hoped that “the courts will pronounce upon the legality of such devices,” which he said was an assault on the Constitution.

Congress member Digvijaya Singh raised the issue of Goa Governor Mridula Sinha “unlawfully facilitating” a BJP government in the state. Quoting media reports, Singh said the governor had in an interview revealed that she had consulted Arun Jaitley on government formation. As per law, the governor can consult top law officers but not a minister or politician. 

Digvijaya wanted a discussion but deputy chairperson P J Kurian red-flagged the issue saying governors’ conduct can be discussed only under a substantive motion. Subsequently, Singh moved a substantive motion. He raised the issue almost on a daily basis but each time Kurian maintained that the chairman was seized of the matter and that he would take a call in consultation with the leader of the House (who is none other than Jaitley). 

To cut a long story short, a discussion was never allowed. Apparently, Jaitley would not want his role in governor’s decision discussed in the House. Congress cried foul saying blocking a discussion on the “misconduct” of the governor was subversion of democracy.

Show of strength

Two days before the House was adjourned, Narendra Modi presided over an extended meeting of the NDA attended by as many as 32 leaders, the second such big gathering after 2014. Ahead of Presidential and vice-presidential elections, the exercise was a show of strength to project a muscular BJP as against the disparate anti-Modi coalition.

Addressing the members, Modi bragged that the session was a “winner” for his government as many bills including the key GST laws were passed. Claiming that there was a “positive” public mood in favour of his government, the PM pitched for development and reforms agenda.

However, the feel good factor was soured by some newfound allies such as C K Janu, leader of Kerala’s Janadhipathya Ooru Vikasana Munnani, a tribal outfit and Goa Forward Party leader Vijay Sardesai. Janu critiqued the needless “beef controversy” urging the government to work for the betterment of the weak and marginalised. Sardesai expressed concern over curbs disturbing Goan culture and tradition.

Two days later, another ally, Conrad Sangma, son of late P A Sangma and leader of National People’s Party, Meghalaya, appealed to Modi to desist from declaring “Digital India” on Good Friday to uphold the “secular fabric” of the country. Last year, Good Friday was marked as Governance Day.

In a counter mobilisation and to shame the government on the last day of the session, as many as 13 Opposition parties led by Congress president Sonia Gandhi marched to Rashtrapati Bhavan and submitted a memo to President Pra­nab Mukherjee seeking his intervention in protecting India’s constitutional demo­cracy, plurality and diversity, safeguard fundamental rights and ensure that the rule of law is upheld in letter and spirit.

What is galling is that the session has exposed infirmities in the parliamentary system as the government employs subterfuges with ease to bulldoze its questionable agenda in the House.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)