The season of change is upon us. The icy chill of Delhi’s winter, which though once glorious but today shrouds the city under a toxic cocktail of pollution and smog, has given way to the soft colours of a warm spring. Politically too things have been warming up with the budget session of Parliament, which begins tomorrow, though I am still to figure out why India almost stops breathing when the countdown to the budget begins.
Without a majority in the Rajya Sabha, everyone knew that the BJP would not have it easy. But AAP’s stunning victory in the Delhi assembly elections has now given the Opposition — which has been in disarray since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections — a shot in the arm and has upset the BJP’s applecart just a little bit.
Let’s see if the Opposition brings itself to band together and take on the mighty ruling party. But with the main pole of the Opposition, the Congress, almost mortally wounded, it will not be easy for it either to hold together. Leadership is always such a tricky issue.
Even though I am not a great believer in this brouhaha over the budget, I think this session will by far be the most interesting among the last few we have had.
The other day I met a BJP MP at the party office and this usually upbeat politician seemed a bit nervous about the session. We prattled on about the state of affairs and while he refused to divulge much about the party’s plan, he did admit that the Delhi setback has sent the party back to the political chessboard. Well, that’s the beauty of democracy, isn’t it? Even a party with such a strong majority in the Lok Sabha can have sleepless nights and get frequent reminders that humility still makes for political capital.
So what is the BJP getting so hot under the collar about? First, of course is the solid drubbing it got in the Delhi elections. That certainly was a turn up for the books for a party used to winning in recent times. Second, much of its stock has been eroded because of its inability to control the motor mouths in the Sangh and the party and their dubious social engineering projects like ghar wapsi and love jihad. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said that his government valued religious freedom, the damage has been done. I think even the astute PM understands that.
Third, a related point actually, the NDA’s discomfort has given the Opposition parties — though they are not in terribly good nick themselves — some breathing space and a chance to get back at the central government. The urban development ministry’s notice to the Congress to vacate its headquarters from 24, Akbar Road is sure to rile the party further and make it work overtime against the government. I think the Opposition alliance will be issue-based and depend on whether a party is facing the BJP in any state election. For example, the BJD may support the BJP with regard to the mining Bill because the two don’t face each other in a state election any time soon and that the BJD has always been sympathetic to economic reforms.
Likewise, the NDA, which has 57 MPs out of a total 245 in the Rajya Sabha, hopes to get the endorsement of the House on the insurance reforms Bill with the support of the BJD’s seven MPs and the AIADMK’s 11. The groundwork was laid by finance minister Arun Jaitley when he met J Jayalalithaa at her residence in January. The government is also hoping that the BSP will support some of the crucial bills.
Fourth, while the PM has been trying revive the India story with his various programmes like ‘Make in India’, skill development schemes and clearing “roadblocks” like the stringent green laws, it’s pretty clear that nothing will take off unless and until the government can ensure adequate land, water and power to the industry lobby.
And herein lies a major problem: There are 23 Bills which would be introduced in this session of Parliament. Among them are four which, if passed, would replace the ordinances that were pushed through after the winter session. These four involve the ordinances on coal mining, land acquisition, insurance and mines and minerals (development and regulation).
The fight between the ruling party and the Opposition would be mainly on these four ordinances, the one on land acquisition being the critical one. Both the Congress and the Left have clearly said that they will protest against the “diluted land bill”. Both parties see the land acquisition Bill as one with “political potential”, as one Congressman put it, to push the Modi government into a corner.
Pressure is building up against the Bill outside Parliament too: Anna Hazare is launching a two-day token agitation and has got an unlike ally: the Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathna, which is part of the BJP-led alliance government in Maharashtra. The land ordinance removed the consent clause from the Act and now 80% of affected farmers would no longer be required to give their consent to acquire land for a private or government project involving national security, defence, rural infrastructure, industrial corridors and housing for the poor.
The coal mining Bill, which would open mining to private companies, could also face opposition. Both Odisha and West Bengal will benefit but then the Trinamool Congress and the BJP are at loggerheads and there is an assembly election in the near future in the state where the BJP is increasingly becoming a key player.
The PM knows that this session is going to be crucial not only for the growth story but also for his image. It is also a test of the NDA’s skill and depth of its engagement with the Opposition, no matter how weak it may be at the moment.
The PM has already launched a charm offensive. Recently, he made his position clear on religious freedom and reached out to Sharad Pawar in his pocketborough Baramati (much to the annoyance of its ally the Shiv Sena). On Saturday Modi attended the pre-wedding ceremony of Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s great nephew Mainpuri MP Tej Pratap in Saifai.
Well, I know, Singh and Modi are not great believers in the dictum that two’s company. But as our recent visitor Barack Obama famously said, politics is a contact sport. And at the moment, the NDA needs to play that game, even if it means a few bruises to its ego.