Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
When the National Investigation Agency Amendment Bill was to be passed in Lok Sabha, Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen’s Asaduddin Owaisi pressed for division. Union Home Minister Amit Shah immediately acceded to the demand and of course he gave his reason for doing so. He said “Let the country know who are those standing against the bill.” And he assured in his reply to the discussion that the amendment to name individuals, and not just organisations, as terrorists, had a reason behind, that people start a new organisation with a different name once an organisation is banned for its terror activities, and he assured that it would not be used to harass people, though it did not carry much conviction because that is what all governments say.
When Vijay Sai Reddy of the Yuva Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) of Jaganmohan Reddy moved a Private Member bill seeking a constitutional amendment to reserve seats for the Other Backward Classes in the legislatures, Union Minister Law, Information Technology and Telecom Ravi Shankar Prasad requested Reddy to withdraw the bill as a constitutional amendment bill has to be moved by the government. The YSRCP has just one member in the Rajya Sabha.
It seems that the BJP feels that it is much better to let the Opposition to voice its dissent, vent its anger because they pose no threat to the government. The Opposition on its part will do everything every time it can to oppose the government. The Opposition was quite vocal on the amendments brought in the Right To Information (RTI) Amendment Bill, the triple talaq bill titled the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights) Marriage Bill, but the government held its ground. A similar pattern could be seen while passing the National Human Rights Commission Amendment Bill and the extension of President’s Rule in Jammu and Kashmir by six months.
It is Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla who has raised the bar for impartiality and given enough time to the Opposition members time in the House. After a debate on a bill and the minister’s reply to the debate, Birla makes time for Opposition leaders to seek clarifications from the minister. And in the commotion over Samajwadi Party (SP) member Azam Khan’s remarks about BJP member Rama Devi who was in the Chair at the time during the debate on the triple talaq bill, and the Treasury benches were up in arms against Khan, Birla sent out a clear message that the House belongs to everyone and not just to the 303 members of the BJP.
It is not a simple confrontation between a united opposition pitted against the united Treasury benches. For example, on the controversial Muslim Women (Protection of Marriage) Rights Bill, the Congress had staged a walkout along with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the National Congress Party (NCP) abstained from the voting, and the Janata Dal (United) of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, which is a member of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), opposed the bill during the debate and it had then staged a walkout. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and the YSRCP voted for it.
The fear that the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, who continues to be president of the BJP as well, give no quarter to the opponent and they are not likely to be generous and courteous to the opposition has been partially belied. The BJP is not yet showing its mailed fist and it is not throwing its weight of 303 members against a numerically weak opposition. The BJP and the Treasury benches are also not afraid of combative and eloquent speakers from the Opposition benches like first time Member of Parliament Mahua Moitra of the TMC, who spares no punches. Her words fall on deaf ears.
The BJP believes that it has the mandate to implement its agenda and it is an assumption that cannot be countered. But as Moitra pointed out in one of her interventions in the House, the Opposition members are also elected ones and they too are duty-bound to express their views and oppose when they think that the government is overstepping its bounds.
But there is a long way to go for members of this Lok Sabha. The two sides – the government and the opposition – will spar with each other for five years, till March 2024, when the next elections will be announced.
The BJP and its allies are likely to become more aggressive in the third – in 2022 – or the fourth – in 2023 – and the opposition too would be equally combative when the next election approaches. The difference in strength in Lok Sabha between the two main parties, the BJP and the Congress is huge. The BJP has 302 – without the Speaker – and the Congress 52. The steady ally of the Congress is the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) of Sharad Pawar is 5. The other party that is an ally of Congress is the DMK with its 23 seats. Congress-NCP-DMK form a block of 80, while the BJP along with Shiva Sena (18) and Akali Dal (2), Lok Janshakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan (5) form a block (his brother Ramchandra Paswan passed away), with Janata Dal (United) of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with its 16 members keeping their options open. The JD (U) staged a walkout over the Muslim Women (Protection of Marriage) Bill. It is those who do not belong to either the NDA or the UPA, who would make this Lok Sabha interesting. These include TMC and YSRCP with 22 members each, Bahujan Samaj Party (BJP) with 10 and Samajwadi Party (5), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (9), Biju Janata Dal (12) along with much smaller parties form a third bloc in the House. So, the Congress-led bloc has around 80 and the non-UPA, non-NDA bloc comprises another 80. So, there would never be a mortal combat where these two blocs would join hands and oppose the BJP-led NDA with determination.
There is then a fractured opposition which makes things easy for the BJP.
Parliamentary debates and voting would change on the opposition side, sometimes crossing the 160 mark if they all stand united and falling to around 100 if some of the parties choose to go their way. The BJP led bloc would maintain a solid phalanx of 300 plus. And it is this which makes this Lok Sabha much less powerful than it could be. When the government commands a solid majority, the Lok Sabha goes with the government. It is only when the government’s majority is on the edge, when the parliament becomes a crucial battlefield.
Despite the disparate numbers, the individual voices from the opposition will leave their mark. Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chaudhury is energetic and always on his feet to challenge the government on every issue. But he may not be in a position to corner the government in its acts of omission and commission because the Congress position on many issues is ambiguous and it may not always oppose the BJP on every issue.
An example is its walkout over the triple talaq amendment bill. There was the expectation that by voting against the bill, the Congress would make its stand clear. Surprisingly, the NCP had abstained from the vote on this bill. On the amendment bill regarding the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and other changes, the opposition did not have objections in principle and supported it, as it did with Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) amendments. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had acknowledged as much while replying to the debate on these amendment bills in the Lok Sabha and in the Rajya Sabha. Not all the bills have an ideological tinge.
The Parliament will witness more cooperation among the parties because on many matters of governance there is convergence over aims and there will be differences over the details. Shyam Singh Yadav of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha) from Jaunpur speaking on the Indian Medical Commission Bill, which is to replace the Medical Council of India (MCI), was sharply critical of the Modi government’s tendency to change names without effecting qualitative changes in the working of the institutions.
Yadav gave the example of the Planning Commission being replaced by the NITI Aayog, implying there is not much difference between the functioning of the old and the new. And he pointed out that a similar thing was happening in the case of National Medical Commission headed by bureaucrats replacing the MCI. The criticism of Yadav, who is a lawyer and who was coach of Olympian and former sports minister Raghavendra Singh Rathore, was both informed and barbed.
The Modi government despite its comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha cannot afford to be complacent. It will have to be on its feet. The man who seems to feel it the most is Shah, who is leading the government’s offensive as well as defense from the front. The Modi government wants to counter the criticism from the opposition on every count as a way of preparing for the 2024 election.