Parliament’s Budget session opened on Tuesday against a turbulent backdrop of unrest on >university campuses , the >Jat agitation in Haryana, an agrarian crisis, >terrorist strikes and attacks on freedoms. In a bid, therefore, to blunt an anticipated attack by the Opposition, the Modi government has adopted a strategy to confront its critics directly by making the JNU “sedition” controversy the centrepiece of this session. MPs from the Bharatiya Janata Party, rather than those from the Opposition, have already given notice for a discussion on the subject ahead of the >presentation of the Union Budget . By presenting itself as the flag-bearer of nationalism, the BJP believes it will be able to seize the advantage from the Opposition while detracting attention from economic and governance issues. Already, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are building public opinion for the “nationalist” cause through various programmes, including vigilante activity by RSS sympathisers. In presenting the majority community as being under siege, the BJP and the Parivar have shifted the discourse to anxiety about the country being threatened by “anti-national” elements.
President Pranab Mukherjee’s customary address to Parliament has, in fact, set the tone. It ended with a reference to Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the many heroes of the freedom struggle whom the BJP has appropriated as an icon, and quoted him as saying, “Nationalism is inspired by the highest ideals of the human race.” The President also impressed on MPs that the “democratic temper calls for debate and discussion, and not disruption or obstruction”. For his part, Prime Minister >Narendra Modi expressed the hope that Parliament would be utilised for “constructive debates” . The opening days of the Budget session traditionally leave little space for the Opposition. The sittings in the session’s first half, in any case, will be dominated by the President’s Address and the debate on it, the introduction of and discussion on >the Union and Railway budgets and private members’ business. The government has also prioritised the passage of the Enemy Property (Amendment & Validation) Bill to replace an ordinance, and the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill that provides for delimitation of constituencies in West Bengal following the exchange of territories with Bangladesh. By proposing a discussion on Rohith Vemula and the JNU crisis, the BJP has further eroded space for the Opposition to seize the initiative. With elections to five Assemblies expected to be notified soon, the debate will obviously be framed in a surcharged context and political parties will be especially keen to play to the gallery. Indeed, given that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is not bound by lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha in getting money bills passed, the government may be tempted to resist the parliamentary etiquette of letting the Opposition shape the session. This would be a mistake. The government has not yet completed its second year in office, but Parliament is already stuck in deadlock. Unyielding postures during this session on either side could stall all forward movement.