That the winter session would be washed out had been clear for a while. With the Opposition parties mustering all their disruptive tactics to stall the functioning of both Houses, insisting on maximalist demands on just how the debate on demonetisation should be structured, hopes for any substantive work had diminished. In the event, the session also left a hysterical afterglow, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi telling a gathering in Gujarat that he had to speak his mind in a “jan sabha” (people’s meet) as the Opposition wouldn’t let him do so in Parliament; and Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the Congress party, complaining that he was not allowed to make earth-shattering disclosures on the floor of the House, but then keeping them close to his chest outside. With theatrics such as these, both the Government and the Opposition have left a question hanging in the politically charged air: what was the point? What did either side gain by bringing Indian parliamentary democracy’s most deliberative process to a grinding halt? Just two bills were passed, one of them a money bill that did not need the Rajya Sabha’s nod. According to the think tank PRS Legislative Research, less than 1 per cent of the 330 questions listed for Question Hour in the Rajya Sabha were answered orally. The Lok Sabha looked better only in comparison, with 11 per cent.
Given what was at stake in the session, the abandonment of the spirit of give-and-take that keeps the legislative schedule humming was baffling. The government has staked much political capital on key financial reforms that need cooperation across the aisles. It lost the chance to pass bills critical to the April 1, 2017, deadline for the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax. It also failed to end the session on a note of federal cooperation to set up the shift to Budget day to February 1 from next year. The Opposition, for its part, has clearly taken its cue from the BJP’s playbook. By forcing adjournments while in opposition, it was successful in reinforcing the impression of a policy paralysis in the second UPA government. But the Congress has a point to prove other than what the BJP did then. To re-establish itself as a viable option for voters, the Congress needs to share its vision and road map in the Rahul Gandhi era. The floor of the House, with a tempered debate and questioning as a constructive party of opposition, is a key venue for that. Basic self-interest demands that government and opposition avert the possibility of the Budget session meeting the same fate as this one.