The political drivers of the monsoon session
The monsoon session of Parliament begins on July 19. It is a significant session for a range of reasons.
One, it is the first full session after a year-and-a-half of Parliament either witnessing curtailed sessions or missing sessions due to the pandemic. A majority of parliamentarians are vaccinated, and it is time they return to their core work of law-making and holding the executive accountable.
Two, it is the first session with a new and expanded council of ministers which will be on test. This is particularly true of the health minister, Mansukh Mandaviya, who will be the face of the government’s Covid-19 management even if he was not the man in charge till 10 days ago.
Three, the political backdrop — of assembly elections held in 2021, particularly the West Bengal outcome, and those scheduled for 2022, especially the battles in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh — will weigh heavily on each side’s calculations. Four, the battle for 2024 has already begun and each intervention will be with an eye on cultivating constituencies, building alliances, projecting leadership, and pushing one’s narrative.
And five, precisely because of all these factors, both the treasury and Opposition benches have a common, rare, convergence of interest in seeing a functional session. To be sure, it will be stormy and there are bound to be walkouts and disruptions, but all indications are that legislative and political business will get done too.
In this overall context, it is instructive to examine the strengths, vulnerabilities, and strategies of both sides as they approach the session.
Within the Opposition, there is both intensified cooperation and heated competition, with the singular objective of emerging as the primary voice against the Narendra Modi government. This cooperative-competitive impulse will play out in different ways.
First, the convergence. The Opposition is on the same page on a range of issues. This includes hopes of cornering the government on its Covid-19 management strategy, especially during the second wave and questioning its vaccination policy. It includes raising the issue of price rise, especially of fuel, which is largely (but not exclusively) a result of taxes — a rising concern that the Opposition believes will resonate with voters. The convergence extends to questioning the government on the economic downturn, especially rising unemployment and depleting demand. It includes asking the government questions on the border situation, especially with China (though defence minister Rajnath Singh’s laudable, quiet, off-the-record, briefing for Sharad Pawar and AK Antony, two former raksha mantris, may help in defusing this line of attack).
But that is where the divergences also begin. There are two issues on which priorities differ. One is Rafale — the Congress intends to raise allegations about the Rafale procurement, Rahul Gandhi’s pet agenda, in the light of new revelations and inquiry in France. But this isn’t an issue that other Opposition parties are too invested in because they doubt it has larger traction among the electorate as seen in the 2019 elections. The second is the farm protests — for some parties such as the Shiromani Akali Dal, Aam Aadmi Party and even Samajwadi Party, this will be a greater focus of attention. For the others, this is an issue that merits support but is not an immediate concern in their electoral calculus.
But the greater divergence is not on issues but the question of leadership. The Trinamool Congress (TMC), emboldened after the West Bengal win, believes that the moment is ripe to assume a larger national avatar in positioning itself as the most militant and aggressive of parties against the central government. It is not a coincidence that Mamata Banerjee is arriving in Delhi on Sunday to spend five days in the Capital as Parliament commences. The TMC believes that it can be the lead player in galvanising a set of regional parties, which may not be comfortable with the Congress and vice-versa.
The Congress, for its part, will seek to be the lead voice but is handicapped by a weak leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury) and the absence of stalwarts in the Rajya Sabha (with Ahmed Patel’s death and Ghulam Nabi Azad’s exit). How the Congress balances its aspiration for leadership, while taking the rest of the Opposition along, will give clues about the state of Opposition unity in the run-up to 2024.
For the government, which is far more coherent than the Opposition given the strong control and focus on disciplined messaging from the top, the session is crucial because it recognises the need to put forth its version on contentious issues. And that is why it appears to have decided that rather than skirt around the second wave of Covid-19, and evade the issue, it will allow a full discussion.
The government believes that with the passage of time, its narrative on the second wave will gain credence. This narrative will rely on the following elements — the deaths were a tragedy, we did our best and Prime Minister (PM) Modi was focused on boosting health care infrastructure through the cruel months of April-May, vaccination is a difficult exercise globally, the slowdown happened because of the failure of the states but now that the Centre has taken back control, vaccination rates will pick up again, preventing a third wave is a collective responsibility but we are prepared. Whether this narrative is enough to satisfy the electorate is to be seen. But the Opposition will focus on refreshing the memory of the second wave and pointing to the errors, while the government will focus on looking ahead.
It will, however, be interesting to see how the treasury benches respond to other issues, especially price rise. Defending it is politically dangerous, evading it altogether is hard. To go on the offensive, there are also expectations that Members of Parliament on the ruling side will pick issues of post-electoral violence in Bengal and perhaps even put forth a few more private member bills on population control.
In terms of leadership, the Rajya Sabha has witnessed a change. Piyush Goyal is now leader of the House — and the session will be a test of his floor coordination and management skills. Goyal is understood to have warm ties with political leaders across the aisle, but whether he can translate this into a more collegial way of functioning, while ensuring that the National Democratic Alliance retains dominance in the House, will have to be seen.
Beyond the political calculus, however, both the government and the Opposition must realise that this has been an extraordinarily difficult time for citizens. They expect the ultimate symbol of their sovereignty, Parliament, to be the home of a civilised, even if fierce, discussion on all issues with the common objective of evolving laws and policies after democratic deliberation. The government must be open to criticism and acknowledge where it has failed, along with highlighting its successes. The Opposition must perform its role of seeking accountability, but do so constructively.