Obstructionist tactics are becoming tiresome and the Opposition may be tiring too.
With the first hint that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity might be slipping, the Opposition has suddenly rediscovered its confidence. Unfortunately, this seems to express itself most vociferously in parliamentary disruptions. Are we really going to see the Congress Party, as also other sections of the Opposition, do to the incumbent National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government what the NDA did to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government between 2009 and 2014? Some of the comments from Congress leaders almost suggest that it is payback time for the NDA.
The NDA has handed the Opposition corruption issues on a platter. The Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, has been shown to have, prima facie, abused her powers to help an absconder from Indian law and then tried to hide her conflict of interest in dealing with him. Another Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and presently Rajasthan Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje, was shown to have secretly signed documents in the United Kingdom to help Lalit Modi get these papers, and her son was shown to have received monies from him. The other corruption scandal is the Vyapam recruitment scam in Madhya Pradesh where allegations have been made that selections to government medical and engineering courses, and jobs were being rigged and that senior members of the BJP government as well as family members of Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan were involved.
There has been almost no business conducted in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha in the Monsoon Session up to the time of writing, and the Opposition, particularly the Congress, seems adamant that they will not allow Parliament to function unless Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan are removed from their posts by the BJP. The demand is justified as those who hold constitutional positions of public trust cannot continue when there are such serious charges against them.
However, this basic parliamentary virtue has long been forsaken by our political leaders. Rajiv Gandhi brazened out serious corruption charges on the back of a crushing parliamentary majority and a weak Opposition, just like what Narendra Modi appears to be planning to do. Both the A B Vajpayee-led NDA government as well as the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government rarely followed the principle of asking ministers to leave their posts when serious charges of corruption or other misdemeanours were levelled against them. It took vociferous protests and obstruction of Parliament by the BJP and other opposition parties for any of the ministers to resign in the previous government. Brazening out corruption charges has long become a “normal” feature of our parliamentary practice; the present dispensation has merely shown itself to be a degree more shameless than its predecessors.
But what of the politics? Can the Congress sustain this tactic of blocking parliamentary functioning for the coming four years? The BJP’s tactics were successful to the extent they were because the party rode on a popular anti-corruption wave in the country which had been created by the Anna Hazare-led movement. The Congress has no such extra-parliamentary political wind in its sails at present, nor does it have the numbers necessary to keep the Lok Sabha in a jam, unless other opposition parties help it.
For Narendra Modi and his government, their parliamentary majority gives them the cushion to stonewall all demands from the Opposition. However, as the experience with the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill shows, there is only so much space that parliamentary majorities give. A successful government needs to carry the Opposition with it. But even if Prime Minister Modi is willing to make concessions with regard to the land bill and the Goods and Services Tax Bill, it does not have that luxury about the demand for resignations of Swaraj, Raje and Chouhan. Acceding to these would lay bare painful divisions within the ruling dispensation and also open up the floodgates for more such demands. There are already serious corruption accusations against Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh and Maharashtra minister Pankaja Munde.
In the face of the BJP’s decision to stonewall any demands for resignations, it may make far more sense for the Congress to use parliamentary debates to push the government and paint it into a corner. This will also have the unintended benefit of presenting before the country a better way of fighting political battles and of reviving parliamentary debates. Given that other instances of corruption and wrongdoings are likely to emerge in the remaining tenure of the NDA government, it may make more sense for the Opposition to present itself as “responsible,” rather than as a weak imitation of the BJP.