If Parliament this week began with the government-Opposition standoff over Minister of State Niranjan Jyoti’s communal remarks being resolved by Rajya Sabha Chairperson Hamid Ansari’s appeal to members to “maintain civility at all costs in public discourse”, it ended with a united Opposition forcing BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj to express regret to the Lok Sabha for describing Gandhi’s killer Nathuram Godse as a “patriot”. Mid-week, RSS affiliate Bajrang Dal-organised “gharvapsi” camps dominated proceedings.
Indeed, if the last five days saw BJP MPs — and their associates outside — stoking the communal embers, the government’s parliamentary managers, by turns, sought to find extenuating circumstances for the comments while deflecting the conversation.
Walking a tightrope, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu replying to the religious conversion debate in the Lok Sabha stressed the need to ban conversions while asserting that the government’s only agenda was good governance, announced he was a proud swayamsewak who regularly visited the Mastanvali Dargah.
Clearly, for the Modi government, keeping its core Hindutva constituency happy while retaining its appeal to an aspiring middle class hooked on reforms-led development won’t be easy.
In the second week, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s apology in Parliament on behalf of Ms. Jyoti failed to end the impasse, he was reportedly furious with his ministerial colleagues. He has now adopted a different strategy: he can’t afford to disappoint the Hindutva votaries, so there are no public statements from him on conversions or Sakshi Maharaj. But to keep the good governance enthusiasts happy, BJP sources are letting it be known that, Mr. Modi took a stern view at the parliamentary party meeting of those who were taking the spotlight away from his government’s good governance agenda.
For the Opposition, of course, the surfacing of the BJP’s communal agenda has come in handy, uniting its disparate members: it has meant, for instance, that the Congress — officially in agreement with the BJP on reforms — can make common cause with MPs from the Left, Janata Parivar and the Trinamool Congress. On Friday, Congress president Sonia Gandhi led the Opposition on shouting slogans against Sakshi Maharaj.
The government wants, for instance, to pass the Insurance Bill, slated next week with the Congress’s help, but now the latter looks emboldened to try and postpone its passage to the next session, with the help of the Trinamool Congress that is all set to disrupt Parliament, furious as it is with the government over the arrests of its leaders in the Saradha scam. The Congress might express its willingness to help pass the Bill, provided the House is in order, a ploy that the BJP used successfully when the UPA was in power, sources said.
Not just that, the Opposition is also likely to strongly demand that three key Bills passed by the Lok Sabha last week — Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, The Payment and Settlement Systems (Amendment) Bill, and The Repealing and Amending (Second) Bill, 2014 — should be first sent to Select Committees for scrutiny: most new Bills are customarily sent to Standing Committees for scrutiny, but the government using its brute majority, succeeded in get them approved in the Lower House.
Finally, time has been allocated next week in the Rajya Sabha for taking up two Opposition-sponsored motions relating to annulment and modification of the central government’s notification of December 2, 2014 seeking to increase the Basic Excise Duty on petrol and diesel.
The Opposition has the numbers to ensure that the motions are carried and, if that happens, it will not only be a major embarrassment for the government, it will also have to be moved in the Lok Sabha.
In the Lok Sabha, the government has the numbers to defeat the motion, but it will test the loyalty of the BJP’s allies.
For the Opposition’s demand to reduce the prices of petroleum products by slashing excise duty is a popular call. The government has its work cut out.