Whose task is it to ensure that Parliament functions - the Treasury’s, the Opposition’s or the Speaker’s? It is, speaking objectively, a collective to be achieved in tandem!
So when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi point fingers at each other for not being allowed to speak, they have three of their own pointing at them. Amid the blame-game that has consumed most of the winter session, parliamentarians haven’t exactly covered themselves with glory. Their inability to debate demonetisation shows them as insensitive to hardships heaped on the people they represent.
The MPs don’t have to travel far to gauge the concomitant irony. Supporting staff could be seen queued up outside ATMs within Parliament House.
On balance, the Opposition cannot be faulted for raising the issue of the single-stroke culling out of 86% of the currency halting lives and livelihoods in cities, small towns and the hinterland. Its insistence on the PM’s presence in the House during the debate is valid to the extent that the decision, by the ruling NDA’s own admission, was arrived at secretly by Modi. He moved solo before the shock announcement of November 8.
The government ostensibly stands to lose more than the Opposition in the ongoing tussle. Its legislative agenda — notably House approvals required for the GST rollout next year — is on a veritable hold. Talks on these are impeded by fresh issues arising out of demonetisation’s implications on revenues of member states.
West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra, who chairs the empowered committee of state finance ministers, wants the GST rollout deferred. He believes that the new tax regime, if unveiled on the originally planned April 1, 2017, could further hurt states impacted by the note ban.
It always takes two to tango. But a greater responsibility devolves on the Treasury and the Chair to make parliament function. The presiding officer allots time for government business in consultation with the ruling side. Other business of the House is firmed up in conjunction with Business Advisory Committees (BACs) comprising leaders of parties with legislative presence in either chamber.
Past experience suggests that rather than standing on prestige, the ruling side would be better-off being pragmatic. The PM’s presence and intervention in the debate — within the time constraints of the office he holds — would show him as being sensitive to the contrarian viewpoint, remarked GC Malhotra, former secretary general of the Lok Sabha. He said the gesture will at once make the Opposition “morally compelled” to let both Houses conduct business.
For entente to happen, presiding officers in either House would need to assert their mandate through a careful admix of persuasion and firmness. They shouldn’t come across as partisan or intemperate. “Only a referee respected by rival teams,” said a Rajya Sabha member, “can make the game happen...”
Vinod Sharma is the political editor of Hindustan Times