Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

The Budget session of Parliament comes to a close with demands for the rollback of administered price hikes remaining unmet and bills, including those relating to the formation of promised new States, failing to make it to the agenda.

OPPOSITION and Treasury benches suffered serious crises of identities through the Budget session of Parliament that ended on May 17. What should have been an occasion for a rigorous interrogation of the government's economic policy priorities by the Opp osition turned into a prolonged and rancorous - and ultimately rather opaque and unrewarding - internal debate within the main Opposition party. The Congress(I) today can agree with extreme alacrity on the leadership of Sonia Gandhi as an indispensable c omponent of its effort to reconstruct its fortunes. Unfortunately, it can agree on little else and seems to lack the mechanisms to bring a semblance of coherence to its internal multiplicity of voices and interests.

The final week of the Budget session was rich in spectacle. Having failed consistently to put the government's economic policies under any kind of scrutiny in Parliament, Congress(I) president and Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi led a march of the party f aithful to the Prime Minister, demanding that the subsidies that were being curtailed under the budget proposals be restored. It was an occasion made for the media and its ultimate purpose was evidently to silence the alarming spiral of scepticism within the party about Sonia Gandhi's leadership.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee heard Sonia Gandhi out with an abundance of indulgence and firmly asserted that the new economic paradigm did not permit the indefinite sustenance of subsidies. A few hours later, Manmohan Singh, the leader of the Cong ress(I) in the Rajya Sabha, joined a debate on economic policy with an eloquent plea that subsidies of the "non-merit" category should be rapidly phased out. The former Finance Minister, who had been part of the Sonia Gandhi entourage that called on the Prime Minister earlier that day, was insistent that only those subsidies that are absolutely essential to the fulfilment of basic needs among the most vulnerable sections of the people could claim to have any rationale.

Shortly afterwards, seemingly to convey a message that the prolonged dithering would soon end, the Congress(I) constituted a committee to reexamine its attitude towards the whole question of economic reforms. Manmohan Singh very pointedly chose to stay a way from the committee, which has in the main been advocated by Arjun Singh, the most ardent of Sonia loyalists within the Congress(I).

Policy confusion took a serious toll of the Congress(I)'s inner morale through the Budget session. And as the leadership vacuum became more evident, increasing numbers of Congress persons seemed inclined to comment openly on the state of disarray within the party. These ranged from Jairam Ramesh, a young technocrat turned politician, seemingly with his best years ahead of him, to veterans like Vasant Sathe and V.N. Gadgil, who have perhaps seen their best years already.

Curiously, the role of the Opposition was played partly by formations within the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). This was true as much of economic policy issues as it was of other items on the legislative agenda. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), whose numbers in the Lok Sabha make it by far the most influential among the BJP allies, found much to protest over in the subsidy cuts. Mamata Banerji was also upset by the price hike in foodgrains as also the decision made during the mid-s ession recess to increase petroleum prices. Only slightly less insistent on undoing these changes were the Janata Dal (United) and the Samata Party.

Repeated representations made outside Parliament proved futile. Neither the Finance Minister nor the Prime Minister seemed inclined to listen to their allies' grievances. Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha's attentions, rather, were focussed elsewhere. Just prior to the day the Finance Bill was to be put to vote, he announced a series of measures targeted specifically at the information technology sector. The idea was obviously to improve sentiment on the stock markets, riding on a wave of euphoria over th e potential of the "new economy" shares.

The rollback demand remained unattended. The Congress(I) and the dissident elements in the NDA may have had an opportunity to turn on the heat, but a failure of coordination ensured that the ruling coalition escaped without any serious questioning. Yerra n Naidu, the leader of the TDP in the Lok Sabha, raised the question of subsidies but was told that the whole matter would be examined by the Expenditure Commission, whose opinions would be decisive. Members from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Sa majwadi Party asked whether cellular telephones and computers were of greater consequence to the Finance Minister than foodgrains and kerosene. But the Congress(I) was absent at this decisive juncture, having walked out in protest at the Speaker's decisi on to guillotine the debate on the demands for grants.

A NOTABLE item of legislation that came up before Parliament was the Information Technology Bill. After scrutiny by a Standing Committee, the Bill was put to vote and cleared by both Houses without delay. A couple of amendments proposed by the Standing C ommittee in the interests of law and order were prudently dropped. The IT Bill was perhaps the most substantive piece of legislation that was cleared in the session.

Other bills that had been promised, but did not make it to the floor of the House, were the Right to Information Bill and the Broadcasting Bill. Bills to carve up three new states from parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh were abruptly introd uced on to the parliamentary agenda towards the end of the session. But irate Opposition members prevented the government from introducing these bills.

The constitution of the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh into a state of Uttaranchal, and the formation of the predominantly tribal states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh from districts of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, represent the most serious alteration of th e political map of India in over three decades. Yet the approach of the government towards a move of such momentous significance, seemed to verge on the cavalier. Cabinet clearance was accorded to the proposals in the penultimate week of the Budget sessi on. An assurance was held out that the bills would be introduced well before the session concluded. Yet when the last day of the session dawned, these bills were not listed on the agenda of either House. A supplementary agenda was later circulated in the Lok Sabha and the bills were sought to be introduced late in the afternoon. RJD and Samajwadi Party members, joined by sections of the Congress(I) and the Left, were soon on their feet voicing loud opposition. Unable to elicit a face-saving intervention from the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the government quickly withdrew, with the promise that the bills would be introduced in the monsoon session.

All three statehood bills have been approved by the State Assemblies concerned. But the RJD has taken offence at the omission of some clauses it had inserted into the Jharkhand Bill, asking for special financial guarantees from the Centre for the revenue loss Bihar will suffer from the separation of its mineral-rich districts. This evidently is a matter for future Finance Commissions to address. But the RJD's opposition is unlikely to be easily defused.

The RJD makes no secret of the fact that it had given its assent to the Jharkhand Bill in the Bihar Assembly on account of "certain political compulsions". Certain elaborate calculations underpin this posture. First, the RJD has had a rather minimal diff usion in the tribal districts of southern Bihar and it sees an opportunity to shore up its presence there by seeming to support the Jharkhand Bill. Second, the sundering of the southern districts would enable it to dominate the political landscape in wha t remains of Bihar. Yet, finally, it is uneasily aware that the residual state of Bihar would be financially rather unviable following the massive loss of revenue sources that the sundering of the mineral wealth of the south would imply.

Also upset with the character of the bills as they stand now is the Congress(I). The Sikh-dominated district of Udham Singh Nagar is in the current scheme included in the proposed Uttaranchal, despite opposition from the Shiromani Akali Dal. The attempt made by the first Vajpayee government to introduce the Uttaranchal legislation had been scuttled by the fact that the Akalis were then a substantial force within the tenuous arithmetic of the 12th Lok Sabha. But in the current Lok Sabha the ruling coalit ion is more comfortably placed and the Akalis have only a relatively marginal presence. This undoubtedly has emboldened the BJP-led government to override the objections of its partner from Punjab. But the Congress(I) has stepped into the breach, with a vigorous advocacy of the cause of the Sikh farmers in Udham Singh Nagar, who are likely to lose substantial landholdings on account of the more stringent land ceiling laws that apply in hill States.

Finally, the reality appears to be that the BJP itself is in no hurry to introduce the statehood bills. It is committed to the constitution of the three new states, but equally keen to ensure that its political support base in the future states is adequa tely buttressed in advance. In this mission, it hopes to utilise the ambivalent commitments of its main political rivals to good advantage. This would explain the rather inept manner in which it proceeded with the introduction of the bills - first pleadi ng printing delays, and then seeking to introduce a supplementary agenda for an issue of such serious political moment.

A certain degree of dissidence within the NDA also gives the BJP good reason to proceed with caution. The TDP, for one, is opposed to the basic principle of altering existing State boundaries. Clearly, the party fears that any exception made to the rule would only fuel demands from other regions that may have reason to feel aggrieved at their relative backwardness. The TDP's main concern is the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh, where a movement for statehood has remained dormant now for close to three decades. Another possible trouble spot could be Vidarbha in Maharashtra, giving the Shiv Sena, for one, reasons for unease.

As the Budget session ended, there was renewed activity towards forming a "third front" that would offer a more spirited and coherent challenge to the BJP-led alliance (see separate article). The informal gathering of four former Prime Ministers was prom ising to provide the nucleus for such an agglutination of political forces in the future. Difficulties in seat sharing prior to the civic and local bodies elections in West Bengal were meanwhile driving a fresh wedge through the internal solidarity of t he NDA. Mamata Banerji, in evident pique at the BJP's intention to contest more seats than she deemed its due, had held out an open threat to resign from the Union Cabinet. The compulsions of governance were creating new schisms within the ruling coaliti on. And the contrary ambitions of its different constituents was contributing its bit.

As the monsoon months run their course, the political scenario confronting the government in the next session of Parliament could be marked by still deeper fissures.

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