Stormy budget session on cards after heated all-party meeting
On the eve of the upcoming Budget Session of Parliament, sparks flew at the customary all-party meeting on Thursday over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), according to people present, indicating that the session is likely to see a slew of protests and disruptions.
National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ally Shiromani Akali Dal, and the government’s steadfast supporter the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), turned the heat on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the meeting, the people added, asking not to be identified. Akali leader Balwinder Singh Bunder said that the government should not pass any legislation that divides people, referring to the CAA without taking its name. And, in a reference to states not yet having received their share of money raised from the Goods and Services Tax for the past four months, BJD floor leader Pinaki Misra alleged that the Centre is not paying states their due and forcing them come to Delhi with a begging bowl.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who joined the meeting midway, urged parties to discuss how India could harness the global situation to improve its economy. He also said that the government is ready to answer all issues in the House. Parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi announced that the government intends to bring 45 bills and two ordinances — on insolvency and coal mining — apart from seven financial bills in the Budget Session.
The session starts on Friday in the backdrop of the continuing, widespread protests against the CAA. The CAA, passed in December in Parliament’s Winter Session, fast tracks the citizenship process to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who arrived in India before 2015. The Opposition-ruled assemblies of Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan and West Bengal have already passed resolutions in their assemblies demanding the scrapping of the law, which has already been challenged in the Supreme Court.
Opponents of the law insist it is discriminatory and unconstitutional because it leaves out Muslims and links faith to citizenship in a secular country. They say it could result in the expulsion or detentions of the Muslims unable to provide the documentation if the law is seen in the context of the proposed pan-India National Register of Citizens (NRC). A process to identify undocumented immigrants in Assam led to the exclusion of around 2 million people from the NRC last year. The government has since clarified there are no immediate plans for a pan-India NRC.
Politicians across opposition parties said they will launch an “all-round” attack on the government on citizenship issues, lack of jobs and the state of economy. Almost all opposition parties, except the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, demanded at the meeting that political leaders detained in Kashmir be released. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) MP Manoj Jha tweeted, “The entire focus was on CAA protests, unemployment and the release of political detainees from Jammu and Kashmir.”
The economy grew at 4.5% in the three months to September 2019, the lowest since March 2013.
Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad accused the government of “dividing the country” through legislation and said the ruling dispensation doesn’t allow any discussions. “The all-party meeting is now a photo op and reduced to a ritual,” Azad said, adding that the government is diminishing the role of the Opposition.
Trinamool’s Lok Sabha floor leader Sudip Bandopadhyay and his Rajya Sabha counterpart, Derek O’Brien, demanded a debate on the CAA, NRC, National Population Register (NPR), jobs and the state of the economy. Bandopadhyay also protested against the role of the Bengal governor. The Shiv Sena, a former ally of the BJP which has since parted ways with its partner, skipped the meeting.
RJD’s Manoj Jha praised defence minister Rajnath Singh and said as long as Singh was the home minister the BJP didn’t nullify Article 370 or bifurcate the state into two Union territories (as was done in August last year) because Singh understood the problems in Kashmir. He also said that the “new BJP” would not understand the difference between majority government and majoritarian government. National People’s Party (NPP) leader Agatha Sangma demanded that north-east India should be exempted from CAA and NRC.
In his concluding remarks, Modi welcomed the suggestions that the session should focus on the economic situation. “In this Budget Session, and in the beginning of the new year, if we can give a proper direction to the country’s economy it would be in the best interest of the country,” he said. Modi also added that “there should be an open discussion on all such issues”, while asking members for increasing the productivity of Parliament.
The first two sessions of this house have been very productive. The Lok Sabha utilised 135% and 115% of its time in the Budget Session and Winter Session respectively. The Rajya Sabha, too, has utilised its full time for two consecutive sessions.
Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla called another all-party meeting on Thursday evening. He said, “All party leaders have assured that the House will run without disruptions. The House belongs to the people and so the House must run smoothly.” He said members cutting across party lines will be given sufficient time to speak on all issues.
The Budget Session will end on April 3. Both Houses will be adjourned for recess from February 11 to March 2. Parliamentary affairs minister Joshi said the session will provide 31 sittings spread over a period of 64 days.