Budget | Oppn must get its act together in Parliament

Union Budget 2021 | Opposition must get its act together in Parliament

The Opposition does not have numbers, it must utilise parliamentary devices to function effectively

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the premises of Parliament House in New Delhi. Credit: PTI File Photo

The coming months will witness a unique sitting of Parliament for one of the most important sessions in its calendar. The primacy of the Budget session cannot be underestimated on two counts. First, it is by far the longest session of the Houses, and the second, and most important, is that the Lok Sabha votes on how the country’s resources will be spent in the next financial year. The passage of the Budget is as an endorsement of the government of the day.

But the uniqueness is not on account of this identifiable task before Parliament during the Budget session. It lies in the circumstances in which both the Houses –Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – will meet amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The schedule states that each House will commence sitting at separate hours, following protocols to protect members, staff and limited public representatives who would be allowed to enter the premises.

What else is different about the next session of Parliament? What will be the approach of the ruling party? And most importantly, how will the parties in the Opposition act amid existing differences and divergence on issues and approaches?

The government of the day enjoys the advantage of numbers, with the BJP basking in the comfort of a majority of its own. While the stability factor will remain constant, this is where the Opposition needs to look at its own work.

Since the assumption of office by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the summer of 2014, the Opposition has been in a state of drift. While people did not give them the strength in terms of representation in Parliament, the efficacy of those inside the Chambers remained restricted.

This is not to dispute the presence of some parliamentarians on the Opposition benches and their brilliant interventions. But the Opposition as a whole has shown little cohesion in challenging the government on issues by displaying a collective and innovative approach. Barring the “Suit-Boot ki Sarkar” jibe, even the Congress could not manage to stick anything on to the government.

The Opposition as a combined entity was unable to come up with a cogent strategy to corner the government on issues that people are agitated about. To say the least, the Opposition or its seasoned leaders are yet to make a thrust that could compel the Prime Minister to intervene even during Question Hour.

It sounds ritualistic for leaders in the Opposition to hold a meeting before the start of each session, identify issues of public importance to be taken up and then, in the end, give up by charging the government with not accepting a discussion or debate on procedural grounds.

The government is not obliged to accommodate discussion in the format the Opposition seeks, and going by norms and practices, a common ground is found for both sides to carry on with the task under the adage that the “Opposition can have it say, the government will have its way.” The priority in the forthcoming session will be to ensure the passage of the motion of thanks to the President’s address, which essentially is a rendition of the plans and priorities of the government, and then consideration and passage of the Finance Bill.

On occasions in the past, the volume of discussion on the Budget in the Lok Sabha has been less and at times the allocation of resources is sanctioned without adequate or no discussion. While non-partisan discussions do take place when parliamentary committees scrutinise the allocations sought by various ministries, these are no substitute for debate in the House on the Finance Bill as it allows members outside the committees to put across their points of view.

The Budget session comes in the midst of a more than two-month-long farmers sit-in at several places on the outskirts of Delhi demanding repeal of the new farm laws enacted during the truncated Monsoon session, resulting in the Republic Day tractor rally and violence. A controversy arose over the passage of these farm laws with the Opposition insisting that due procedure was not adhered to in the Rajya Sabha.

Instead of resorting to the oft-staged practice of disruptions or moving into the well of the House to stall the proceedings in order to challenge the government, the Opposition could utilise parliamentary devices available to them, and there are plenty. While more often than not the Opposition seeks adjournment or a discussion entailing a vote, admission of such motions is not an everyday occurrence. For instance, calling attention, an Indian parliamentary innovation, is one such tool that members in the past have taken recourse to. Once admitted, the minister concerned responds in writing on the matter raised, and members associated with it seek clarifications. The entire exercise takes less than an hour just as another device, half-an-hour discussion.

For all this to happen, the Opposition would have to think and move collectively, instead of dissipating energies amid competing political interests. Parliament is the forum to scrutinise the policies of the government and to hold it accountable on behalf of the people who elect them. It is time the Opposition got its act together.

(The writer is a senior journalist)