A parliamentary session is meant to be an occasion for debate and the passing of legislation. Its proceedings should give us a vision of India and a sense of direction. There was little debate and even less legislating in the monsoon session. But what it did provide was a vision of India over the next few months. And if the Congress and the BJP stick to their stands, then it is not a vision that engenders much hope.
The prime minister, having spent a largely frustrating first year in office, has returned to the two planks that gave him his landslide victory: strong leadership and his promises on development.
One reason why UPA2 was such a failure was because PM Manmohan Singh seemed completely out of things; unable to provide any leadership or control events. He looked on helplessly as Parliament was disrupted again and again and each time there was a media and opposition-led outcry against one of his ministers, he promptly sacked the minister in question. He was encouraged by Sonia Gandhi, who believed that by acting on allegations of corruption or impropriety, she was occupying the moral high ground.
As we know now these were disastrous political misjudgements. UPA2 is not remembered for taking any moral stands. It is recalled as a corrupt government where minister after minister was caught with his or her fingers in the till and forced out of office by the pressure of public protests.
Modi has learnt from the UPA’s mistakes. Over the last few months he has focused on delivering strong leadership and cast himself as an Olympian figure who is above the noisy hurly-burly of day-to-day politics. Where Manmohan Singh would sit helplessly in Parliament as the opposition disrupted the proceedings, Modi does not even bother to attend. And while the UPA would throw its ministers to the lions at the first sign of media outrage, Modi has held firm. Nobody has been sacked; not Sushma Swaraj, not Vasundhara Raje and not Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He hasn’t even relented on the controversial choice of Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chief.
His calculation is that once you begin to feed the beast of public pressure, its appetite will only increase. Hold firm and eventually the media’s roaring lions get exhausted and the opposition is seen as raking up an issue nobody cares about any longer.
By and large, he has been proven right. At one stage, the media were predicting that both Sushma and Vasundara would have to go within hours. Several weeks later, they are both very much in office.
Modi has had less success with the second component of his plank: development. He made extravagant promises that he simply
could not deliver on, such as the return of all black money to India within months, the strengthening of the rupee, a vast increase in industrial growth, etc.
So here, he’s less Olympian and more willing to compromise. He has abandoned his own land bill and accepted the Congress version. He has suggested that he will be flexible on GST provisions. And so on. His behaviour suggests that he was taken aback by the strength of the coalition against the land Bill, which means that he will tread carefully on his promise to reform the labour laws, an enterprise even more fraught with danger than land acquisition. He’s moving away from the grand announcements and focusing on the things that can be done right away. In the process, however, he is losing the support of those who believed they were voting for a structural reformer and have ended up with a tinkerer.
As significant as the changes in the BJP’s approach is the Congress’s behaviour in the session. The party has cast aside the ineffectual-but-well-meaning style of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi has abandoned her holier-than-thou approach. Even Rahul Gandhi, long written off by the BJP as a wimp, has suddenly come to life, displaying an instinct for going for the jugular.
It is not difficult to see what the Congress strategy is. In real terms, the Congress is a bit player. It was demolished by a Modi wave at the general election and has a mere 44 MPs to the BJP’s 282. Its principal agenda, therefore, has been to punch above its weight, to put the government on the defensive and to create a false equivalence between its tiny parliamentary presence and the BJP’s hulking presence.
The Congress has succeeded partly because the BJP has fallen into its trap. Each time the BJP answers the Congress’s corruption charges by raking up the UPA’s history of scams, it accepts the principle of equivalence. Each time it blames its failure to push through its parliamentary agenda on the Congress, it strengthens that false equivalence. A tiny player is being seen as equivalent to a party that has won the greatest landslide victory in many decades.
The BJP’s hope is that the Congress will be perceived as a negative force that is letting India down by wasting tax-payer money on parliamentary disruption and preventing important Bills from being passed.
This is valid. But it also attracts a pragmatic counter. The BJP did exactly the same thing during UPA2. Did the voters feel so angry that they held the disruptions and the stalling of vital legislation (including, ironically, the GST Bill) against the BJP?
Of course, not. They voted the BJP in by a landslide.
This is the Congress’s big gamble. It reckons that voters care less about parliamentary disruptions than we think. And even if they do, the election is nearly four years away. Who is going to remember the events of last month then? Far better to use disruption as a means of demonstrating that the Congress is still a potent political force.
Given these positions — Modi’s Olympian stance, the Congress’s guerrilla offensive, and the pressing need for the government to deliver on the economic front — India is headed for a tense phase in the months ahead. There will be no compromises and the battle will get even uglier.
(The views expressed are personal.)