A role reversal

Print edition : September 01, 2001

In the monsoon session of Parliament, the smaller constituents of the NDA virtually played the role of the Opposition on more than one occasion and embarrassed the BJP and its Ministers.

THE current session of Parliament has been remarkable for the way in which the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) played the role of the Opposition even better than the Opposition itself. All the sound and fury from the Congress(I) almost always ended in a whimper, whereas the Bharatiya Janata Party's allies embarrassed the government on more than one occasion and almost brought it down on the Unit Trust of India (UTI) issue.

The Congress was the first to raise the UTI issue in both Houses. It demanded Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha's resignation and brought an adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha. Supported by other Opposition parties, it also demanded that the entire UTI fiasco be investigated by a Joint Parliamentary Committee.

While the adjournment motion failed, it was following pressure from the BJP's allies that the government agreed to have the UTI fiasco investigated by the JPC, which was looking into the stock market scam. Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi's announcement to this effect after an all-party meeting on August 3 was small consolation for Congress leaders who were sulking over the defeat of their adjournment motion the previous day.

The high point of the discussion on the UTI muddle was a scathing attack on the government by the Shiv Sena's Sanjay Nirupam in the Rajya Sabha on July 30. Claiming to speak with the blessings of his party supremo Bal Thackeray, he alleged that the scandal had direct links with the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). He told a stunned House that three phone calls had been made to the then UTI Chairman P.S. Subramanyam, from the Prime Minister's residence before the UTI took the decision to invest in the Lucknow-based IT company, Cyberspace Ltd. He even disclosed the three telephone numbers. When BJP back-benchers started to disrupt his speech, the entire Opposition took his side, blurring the dividing line between the Opposition and ruling parties.

A direct fallout of this attack was Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's announcement at the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting the next day that he wanted to quit office because he was unable to ensure that the NDA functioned in a disciplined manner. All hell broke loose in the NDA after this and all the NDA constituents, including the Shiv Sena, sought to "persuade" Vajpayee to stay on. Sanjay Nirupam was "forced" by Bal Thackeray to tender a written apology to Vajpayee.

The government later conceded that the PMO was indeed in touch with the UTI Chairman, but said it was Subramanyam who had made the phone calls. Until then the PMO had denied any interaction with the sacked UTI Chairman.

This episode created more political embarrassment to the NDA than all the Opposition attacks that followed. Even the drama during the debate on the adjournment motion paled in comparison, despite Congress member Mani Shankar Aiyar's attempts to highlight the corruption by flinging currency notes at the treasury benches.

SAFFRONISATION of education was another issue that the Opposition raised and hoped to nail the government with. But again it was the BJP's allies who stole the show. In the debate which began on August 20, the BJP found itself isolated. Except for the Biju Janata Dal and the Shiv Sena, all its allies, including the Telugu Desam Party, the DMK, the Janata Dal (U), the Samata Party and the ally-in-waiting, the Trinamul Congress, slammed the government for trying to smuggle in its "hidden agenda" through the "saffronisation" of school curriculum.

The allies let it be known that in the States where they were in power they would not accept the textbooks with the changed syllabi. K. Yerran Naidu of the TDP demanded a proper national discussion and a debate in Parliament before effecting changes in the syllabi. "Any change can be made only with the full consent of the State governments. Education is on the Concurrent List and we shall not accept the imposition of any new education policy," he said.

The other allies, too, spoke on similar lines; they made it clear that the secular and modern content of the National Education Policy should not be tampered with. They objected especially to the changes being made in the history textbooks suggesting that the Aryans were the "original" inhabitants of the Indo-Gangetic plain, contradicting the universally accepted theory that they were nomads from Central Asia who settled in this part of the country.

They also objected to the inclusion of courses in astrology in the academic programmes of universities. They felt that the government sought to make subtle changes in the curriculum in order to glorify the years of Hindu political dominance and to denigrate the medieval period when the Mughal empire flourished.

In comparison to the allies' presentation, the attack by the Congress and the Left lacked sting. Although it was the first time in this session that the two joined hands to attack the government, they failed to sound convincing. The Leader of the Opposition, Sonia Gandhi, delivered a lacklustre, 15-minute speech, cautioning the government against tampering with the National Education Policy which had Parliament's sanction.

"We will not let the government get away with ideological sleights-of-hand," she asserted. The government's proposed National Curriculum Framework for School Education, she said, did not have the nation's mandate."We cannot, and must not, accommodate the ideological idiosyncrasies of a particular school of thought. For, to mix communal ideology with history textbooks and scientific facts is tantamount to playing with fire," she said.

Initiating the debate, Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI(M) accused the government of pursuing a "sinister and divisive agenda".

Human Resource Development Minister Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi summarily rejected all the charges and declared that the government had followed a transparent and democratic process while preparing the National Curriculum Framework. He denied that there was any hidden agenda in it and said that the changes only sought to improve the quality of education. He assured the members that there would be no deviation from the 1986 National Education Policy. "We are bound by the 1986 policy and the amendments carried out in 1992," he said.

Joshi accused the Opposition of repeating "lies and half-truths". "This is dangerous propaganda. We are for equal respect to all religions and that is what the framework contains," he said, and clarified that Sanskrit was an elective subject, not a compulsory one.

In the debate on the Agra Summit, too, the Opposition's attempts to take the government to task ended in failure when Vajpayee gave an spirited reply in the Rajya Sabha. Senior Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia said the government stumbled into the talks without even the basic preparation and the result was a disaster. "We lost before the Summit, during the Summit and after the Summit," he said.

Scindia's offensive ruffled quite a few feathers. Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, for instance, was offended by his remark that "while the government raved and ranted about cross-border terrorism, it sent the honourable Foreign Minister to escort terrorists to their freedom in Kandahar." In his reply Jaswant Singh commented that Scindia had subjected him to abuse, a point immediately refuted by Scindia, leading to a verbal duel between the two.

But the Prime Minister's reply, both in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, overshadowed everything else that was said earlier. In a short and forceful reply in the Lok Sabha, he said it was General Musharraf's unifocal insistence on Kashmir and his refusal to recognise the existence of cross-border terrorism that prevented an agreement being reached between the two countries.

In the Rajya Sabha, he lambasted Pakistan for encouraging cross-border terrorism and said that it was mistaken if it thought India could be pressured by such acts. The dialogue process can also be terminated if Pakistan did not stop encouraging cross-border terrorism, he said.

He even took a dig at Home Minister L.K. Advani, saying that when he and General Musharraf remained closeted in the room for quite some time, Advani sent an emissary to check what was happening. Although the remark was made in a jocular vein, it was seen as a signal that he resented being put under surveillance.

The only occasion when the entire Opposition appeared united and put the government in the dock came after the killings in Doda and Jammu. It criticised the government for its handling of the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, especially since such terrorist attacks should have been anticipated after the failure of the Summit.

When Advani stood up to reply, Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) members shouted slogans demanding his resignation. They said he had lost the moral authority to continue in office. Advani's reply that the country did not have enough forces to guard all places against terrorist attacks sounded like abject surrender to the terrorists. He said that despite the handicaps, the government was making all efforts to curb terrorism and listed the measures, including the extension of the Disturbed Areas Act to the Jammu region. The Opposition was dissatisfied with the reply and staged a walkout.

The session has remained under the shadow of the coming elections in Uttar Pradesh. Every instance of violence in the State got an entry in the Lok Sabha, with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress vying with one another to score debating points. Even the brutal killing of S.P. Member of Parliament Phoolan Devi got linked with the polls, with the S.P. accusing the BJP of hatching a conspiracy to eliminate its leaders.

Interestingly, towards the fag end of the session Tehelka also re-appeared in Parliament, this time thanks to the NDA, which came up with revelations about the use of sex workers in the sting operation.

The session, if anything, exposed the government's vulnerabilities and also the lack of unity in the Opposition. The NDA constituents, on the other hand, effectively played the role of the Opposition on many occasions. Whether this indicates troubled times for the NDA, the elections in U.P. will tell.

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