NDA finds friends across the aisle, finally

The passage of the Constitutional Amendment Bill on the Goods and Services Tax reflects, in many ways, the coming of age of the NDA government in the arena of parliamentary management. With a majority in one House and a lack of it in the other, the Modi dispensation has been hamstrung in managing the numbers to push through key legislation.

Last November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his residence for tea, but the spirit of conciliation got washed away in a tsunami of Opposition fury on the National Herald case, the suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula and the incidents at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Some jugglery too

Within the ruling dispensation, however, the frustration with the numerical disadvantage in the Rajya Sabha gave rise to some creative thinking. “In the specific instance of the Goods and Services Tax, it was clear that the Congress could be isolated. We started speaking to various Chief Ministers, even the AIADMK which is still opposing the Bill,” said a senior Minister. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, known for his good relationships across party lines, did improbable bits of political jugglery (in one instance, having dinner with Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, and lunch the following day with Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhara Rao). He was one of the first to congratulate Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on their re-election in May.

In addition, the NDA showed aggression in shoring up numbers physically as well. They managed three extra Rajya Sabha seats in the Rajya Sabha polls in June. “We were now in a position to dare the Congress to oppose a reform measure that they wanted credit for,” said a senior Minister.

This carrot-and-stick policy — of parsing the numbers, meeting parties as individual units, and separating them from a coherent anti-government whole — worked in the case of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015. “It was pressure from the various State governments, headed by various regional parties, that wanted access to the Rs. 42,000-crore fund, which forced the Congress’s hand,” said the Minister.

Two years of stalled legislation has shown the NDA that numbers are not everything. It has also shown them that every Bill will appeal to some political quarter or the other. That Opposition unity is conditional, and that the way of parliamentary life, is one Bill at a time.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 11:11:12 AM |

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