The second half of Parliament’s budget session passed off relatively peacefully and could be considered as the least disturbed in the past two years since the BJP-led NDA government came to power in May 2014. And the Congress has already started taking credit for that.
Congress leaders say the party acted as a responsible opposition despite “repeated provocation” by the treasury benches. They cite Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s remarks while adjourning the House sine die on Wednesday, two days ahead of schedule.
“I am happy that in the recent past this is the first session in which (the) House was not adjourned even for a single minute due to interruptions. I thank the entire House for cooperation,” she said.
In a novel way of protest, Congress members staged a peaceful sit-in in the well of the Lok Sabha on Tuesday after they were disallowed from raising the issue of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attack on party chief Sonia Gandhi for which senior leader M Veerappa Moily had also given a notice for privilege motion. During the demonstration, Congress members did not stall proceedings of the House when a discussion on drought, drinking water and inter-linking of rivers was on.
“We have always epitomised the role of a constructive opposition party be it in the passing of bills or raising of issues and debating them in both houses of Parliament despite uncalled for provocation from the BJP’s new gift to the Rajya Sabha,” Congress spokesman Tom Vadakkan said in a veiled reference to Subramanian Swamy, nominated to the upper House recently and known for his single-point agenda of targeting the principal opposition party.
In the debate on the AgustaWestland chopper scam, the BJP’s claim of “big revelations” in Parliament proved to be a damp squib as Congress leaders put up a spirited defence of the party and the leadership.
The Congress’ repeated demand for a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the deal appears to have helped the party in fighting the perception battle to some extent.
In its bid to put the Congress on a mat, the BJP drew parallels between the helicopter scandal and the Bofors gun scam in 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. Defence minister Manohar Parrikar told Parliament that the AgustaWestland scam will not go the Bofors way.
Again the move did not cut much ice as many governments have come since then but nothing has been established so far. In an interview to Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter last year, President Pranab Mukherjee stated that the Bofors wasn’t a scandal but rather a “media trial”.
Swamy’s efforts to drag Congress president Sonia Gandhi and other top leadership into the controversy was effectively countered by a combined opposition which sought answers from the NDA government over the status of the ongoing probes into the scam and the progress made in identifying and bringing bribe-takers to book in the past two years. “The objective of the BJP was to use this new pawn (Swamy) and keep the House on boil. The Congress while giving a fitting reply to this maverick kept its cool and let the House function,” Vadakkan said.
Similarly, the government failed to score any political point on the Uttarakhand issue as some of its allies and “friendly” parties also opposed the move to invoke Article 356 in the hill state.
Stuck to its guns on GST
Though the Congress allowed some legislative business in both Houses, it stuck to its stand on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill, a key reform agenda of the Narendra Modi government. The opposition party maintained that it was willing to come on board provided the government accepts its three key recommendations. The Congress is demanding doing away with the 1% additional tax for manufacturing states, create a dispute redressal mechanism headed by a Supreme Court judge and capping the GST at 18%.
For its part, the government urged the opposition to reconsider its stance, particularly with regard to its insistence on a judge-headed dispute resolution panel, saying it will be a “misadventure” of handing over taxation powers to judiciary which “step by step, brick by brick” is encroaching upon the legislature.
In a last-ditch attempt to reach out to the Congress, finance minister Arun Jaitley conceded that the GST constitutional amendment bill was originally conceived by the UPA and assured that he will hold talks with the Congress leaders again so that the bill could be taken up in the monsoon session of Parliament.