The Parliament witnessed an acrimonious debate on Wednesday over the JNU row and the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, with the Opposition accusing the government of “mercilessly crushing” the principles of democracy and the ruling side justifying the action against students.
The charged discussion saw the entire House, including the Congress and the Left, condemning the alleged shouting of anti-national slogans in the university campus though the BJP attacked Rahul Gandhi for his visit to JNU to express solidarity with arrested student leader Kanhaiya Kumar.
We list a few key takeaways from the debate that swung back and forth.
A combative BJP
From union human resource minister Smriti Irani to the young leader Anurag Thakur, the BJP showed no sign of bowing to the Opposition’s pressure over the Jawaharlal Nehru University issue and the Vemula suicide.
Chew these samples: “My name is Smriti Irani. I challenge you to ask my caste”, or “You can behead me if you are not satisfied with my answers”, and “Are you (Rahul Gandhi) standing for Afzal Guru, are you with the people who attacked Parliament (in the 2001 attack) or with democracy?”
Aside from the Congress, the BJP came under heavy attacks from other Opposition parties like the Left, Janata Dal (United), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Trinamool Congress over the Dalit scholar’s suicide in Hyderabad University.
The ruling party however managed to latch on to the first opportunity to hit back at its opponents. Offense, after all, is the best defence, and despite the string of electoral losses, the Modi government remains in counter-attack mode.
Debate over disruption
After washing out successive sessions with protests, the Opposition seems to have changed strategy. It is now looking to corner the government by raising points, not slogans, inside the House.
Perhaps the Oppostion realised that repeated disruptions cannot be a routine form of protest.
The principal Opposition party in the Lok Sabha, the Congress, even prevailed on the government to advance the debate on the students’ issue by a day despite its lowest ever-tally of 44 MPs.
The debate also helped the Opposition. Powerful speakers like Jyotiraditya Scindia from the Congress and Trinamool’s Sugata Bose lambasted the government and the BJP.
Be it Anurag Thakur or Jyotiraditya Scindia, most of the speakers who participated in the debate were the relatively younger faces of parties.
This parliament has 314 first-timer MPs in Lok Sabha. Together, they constitute 58% of the strength of the House. While in some earlier debates the older members took on the responsibility of attacking the other side, the students’ issue saw more participation from younger MPs.
These included Chirag Paswan, union minister Ramvilas Paswan’s son and a first time MP, who spoke on behalf of the Lok Janshakti Party, and Shiv Sena’s Arvind Sawant, also a first-time MP.
Eye on state polls
Wednesday’s debate started off focused on the JNU row. But BSP chief Mayawati single-handedly managed to turn the Rajya Sabha’s attention to the suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit scholar from Hyderabad University.
Though yet to spread its reach to southern states, the BSP rallied behind the highly-publicised debate. The Dalit issue has become a key point across states due for elections.
If Behenji had next year’s elections in mind, BJP’s Lok Sabha MP Meenakshi Lekhi was possibly thinking of the Kerala polls due in two months. Starting discussions on the motion to thank the President for his opening speech, Lekhi raked up the Communist Party of India (Maoist)’s role in Kerala. She targeted the Left, calling it the “witch” in the fairy tale of India’s growth story.
Silence of the two big leaders
They attacked each other on several occasions in the past with many colourful references. But as the Parliament heated up on the Vemula suicide and JNU row, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi were conspicuously silent.
The younger Gandhi has told media on Wednesday that he was not being allowed to talk. “I will speak, but they will not let me speak. Because they are scared of what I will say,” he said.
Congress leader KC Venugopal was slated as the first speaker but passed on his turn to party colleague Jyotiraditya Scindia. Many wondered why Gandhi did not take the opportunity. His critics are likely to pick on this.
Similarly, Modi, who has often faced accusations from critics for his silence on key issues, continued to avoid participating in the discussion. This indicates that he will talk when he chooses to and not under pressure from the Opposition.
Defending him, parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu told Hindustan Times, “Why should the PM speak every time something happens? We have other senior ministers and after all, the government is about collective responsibility.”