See-saw Expectations

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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India just saw its worst ever session of Parliament. But it has left the NDA energised and aiming for a quick return to power at the Centre

If there were a sensitive index for political parties, India’s would have crashed at the onset of the winter session of Parliament. By the time the no-work-all-noise session ended on 13 December, it would have been scraping record lows. But delusions, apparently, have a market of their own. The opposition, particularly the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), is gung-ho. Led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), these parties believe that their stock has soared.

The BJP has even spied an end to its days of isolation, which began with its 2009 Lok Sabha defeat, and expects a groundswell of public support for making a spectacle of itself obstructing the Government—no work was done. The party, insistent on a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) to probe the 2G spectrum scam, would not let it. Led by the Congress, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre rejected the JPC demand and would not budge. As a result, Parliament made history. It was its worst ever session.

In his closing remarks, Rajya Sabha Chairman M Hamid Ansari noted with dismay that the session “displayed a distinctive feature—no debates or discussions on public matters took place; no special mentions were made or laid on the table; no zero hour interventions were sought; no questions were answered orally; and no supplementary questions were raised”. Listing the ‘achievements’ of the session, a tough job at the best of times, Ansari said, “Four appropriation bills were passed. Altogether, the House assembled for 2 hours and 44 minutes in 23 days. The prohibition in rules about shouting slogans, displaying posters, obstructing proceedings by coming into the well of the House, was constantly ignored.”

If Ansari was ambitious in asking members to introspect on how the session had gone, his Lok Sabha counterpart was perhaps even more so. Speaker Meira Kumar tried appealing to the consciences of some 40-odd young MPs who were taking part in a car rally one fine Sunday during the session. The rally’s theme was road safety, but it was a static menace she had in mind. “The best driver is one who does not cause a jam and neither allows anyone else to cause a jam. I think this applies to Parliament as well,” she said at the prize distribution ceremony.

She has a point. In a democracy where the people’s main representative body works only 5 per cent of its stipulated time (as recorded by the Lok Sabha this session, with the Rajya Sabha clocking an even lower figure of just 2 per cent), feckless stagnancy is a worse problem than reckless dynamism. Clearly, the country is yet to rid itself of the sclerotic sense of advancement that held it back in the past. According to data obtained from PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, this winter saw the least productive parliamentary session in the last quarter of a century.

Scams and controversies have erupted with equal if not more energy in the past as well, but they did not stop work being done. On the contrary, some of those phases actually resulted in more work. When the opposition demanded a JPC on the Bofors gun controversy in August 1987, the Lok Sabha actually worked harder, clocking 152 hours as opposed to the 144 hours planned earlier. In 1992, when the opposition demanded a JPC on the Securities Scam (the Harshad Mehta case), House proceedings were frequently disrupted. But regular business was conducted for 163 hours that session instead of the planned 186. The following year, when the JMM bribery case rocked Parliament, the Narasimha Rao Government faced a no-confidence motion that was defeated. But the Lok Sabha worked four extra days.

House disruptions turned serious, however, with the telecom scam of 1995, involving the then Union Telecom Minister Sukh Ram, which threw the House into turmoil. In December 1995, the winter session saw only one-third of its stipulated time being used productively. And in 1997, the session had to be adjourned sine die abruptly on 24 November, just five days after it began. It was later reconvened on 2 December 1997—only after the Gujral Government’s resignation.

That is the record that the recently concluded session of the Lok Sabha has broken—and how. “I have been in Parliament since 1970 except for a two year gap, and I do not recall a single session like this with no work at all,” says NDA Chairman and BJP leader LK Advani. If it hadn’t been for the UPA’s “sheer stubbornness”, the NDA believes, this would not have happened. “There is no earthly, convincing and credible reason to deny a JPC,” adds Advani, “From the Prime Minister to Congress president, they were adamant on [rejecting] the JPC.” But the opposition, he insists, should take pride in holding up Parliament until the Centre submits to a JPC. “I believe the washout [of the session] was triggered off by the Congress party. We didn’t know at that time that the entire session will go like this. Slowly, a consensus evolved in the NDA that a JPC is the only option to give all information to the public on the issue of corruption,” he says.

That’s not all. The BJP also believes that it has been able to isolate the Congress on the issue, while its own banishment is now over. It is true that NDA spirits got a boost from the results of the Bihar Assembly polls, which saw it romping home to one of India’s most emphatic election victories ever. This has raised hopes of expanding the NDA’s base and drawing in new allies, or at least luring back those that deserted it after the Vajpayee Government’s loss of power in 2004.

So, can the NDA ride the 2G spectrum scam back to power at the Centre? Moving a no-confidence motion against the UPA Government would be a direct lunge for power, but this is not something the BJP can afford right now, no matter how many party members buy the delusion of a revival in their popularity. As a party insider better attuned to India’s public mood warns, this is not a see-saw. The UPA’s falling stock does not necessarily mean that the BJP’s is on the rise.

Yet, the NDA gameplan is to raise the corruption pitch publicly, for which it plans a sustained national campaign across India, with rallies in several state capitals and major cities over the next two months. Beginning with a public rally in New Delhi on 22 December, NDA leaders will travel to Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Curiously, the alliance has left out Karnataka, where the BJP-led government is mired in allegations of corruption. “We will deal with the Karnataka problem soon, and we will deal with it effectively,” says Advani, whose party hopes to stretch the agitation till the Budget session of Parliament, next spring. If the UPA fails to pass its Finance Bill, it would have to give up power. For the record, though, Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj tells Open that the party won’t try to stall the bill. “We never create constitutional crises. Even in this session, we allowed the Government to pass supplementary demands.” The UPA can breathe easy, then. At least for now.