Cautious Congress

Print edition : April 09, 2010

BJP workers protest against the Centres inability to control the prices of essential commodities, in New Delhi on February 10.-V. SUDERSHAN

The recess could not have come at a better time. The remedies were becoming as big a quandary as the original problems. This was the comment of a senior Congress leader from south India on the adjournment of the Lok Sabha on March 16 for the customary recess during the Budget session. The leaders relief was understandable. The recess would give the Congress political managers valuable time to try and manage the crises that engulfed the party, as well as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government it leads, during the first three weeks of the Budget session. According to the political and media managers of the Congress, the party had indeed foreseen a set of problems during the session and had evolved measures to counter them. But the political situation that developed over the first weeks of the session was such that these remedial measures themselves were becoming problems.

During the run-up to the session, the main concern in sections of the Congress was the issue of price rise, which had become the rallying point for the opposition parties. Mass campaigns launched by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Left parties and regional forces such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) on the issue were expected to find an echo in Parliament too.

The sense of discontent among UPA partners such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Trinamool Congress about the causes of inflation and price rise as also the measures to tackle them added to the discomfiture of the Congress. The DMK and the Trinamool Congress even demanded a withdrawal of the budgetary hike in oil prices. It was in this context that Congress president Sonia Gandhi met a group of women MPs from the party and suggested that the party should move in strongly to get the Womens Reservation Bill passed. She asked the MPs how wonderful a gift it would be for the women of India if the UPA government could pass the Bill on March 8, the centenary of International Womens Day. She went on to add that that they should ensure the passage of the Bill even if they have to snatch papers and tear them.

This clarion call to go all out for the Bill was immediately hailed as a historic initiative by the Congress leadership. However, at another level, many politicians, including some Congress leaders, said in private conversations that it was a realpolitik move to deflect Parliaments focus from the issue of price rise.

This distracting tactic did work when the Bill was presented in the Rajya Sabha on March 8. The ruckus created by the members belonging to the S.P. and the RJD, who are vehemently opposed to the Bill in its present form and want a quota within the quota, for Muslims and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), changed the focus of Parliament completely. The argument of these parties is that womens reservation as it is conceived now will only help elitist sections of women gain political power.

Interestingly, the UPA government and its leadership, which had sought to present a picture of extreme determination to pass the Bill on the centenary of International Womens Day itself, did not make adequate arrangements in the Rajya Sabha to counter the S.P. and the RJD. This added credence to the perception that there could be a distracting realpolitik dimension to the introduction of the Bill.

The net result was that the Rajya Sabha could not keep its date with the passing of the Bill on International Womens Day though a vast majority of the members were in support of the Bill. This naturally raised questions about the sincerity and seriousness of the government in passing the Bill.

Ultimately, it was the resolute support of the Left parties and the BJP that impelled the government to take strong measures leading to the ouster of the troublesome MPs of the S.P. and the RJD from the House, and the passing of the Bill the next day. The argument of Congress managers at this juncture was that the party had not made adequate arrangements on March 8 because they did not foresee the actions of the S.P. and RJD members.

According to the Lucknow-based political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh, the mayhem in the Rajya Sabha on March 8 suited the realpolitik objectives of the Congress as did the passing of the Bill on March 9. The mayhem on March 8 laid bare the division within the opposition ranks, and the developments on March 9 sent the message that the Congress can act decisively if it wants. Until March 8, and the presentation of the Womens Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha, the opposition was getting united across ideological lines against the government, especially on the issue of the rise in the prices of essential commodities and oil. But with the presentation of the Bill, that growing opposition unity was disrupted, he said. A party like the Janata Dal (United), which is the ruling party in Bihar and is a component of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, even saw a split within, with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar supporting the Bill and party president Sharad Yadav opposing it. Clearly, this was one of the unstated objectives of the presentation of the Bill, and to that extent the Congress leadership could be happy.

However, as Indra Bhushan Singh himself points out, politics and statecraft are such tricky instruments of power-play that even the best-laid plans can go awry. That is exactly what had happened even as the Congress leadership watched gleefully the disruption of opposition unity on March 8 and 9. The Trinamool Congress, the second largest component of the UPA, distanced itself from the Bill on the grounds that while the Congress took the Trinamools arch-rival, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), into confidence on the Bill it did not consult that party.

Significantly, the Trinamool has to fight the CPI(M) in the West Bengal Assembly elections due next year and it does not want to be seen voting together with the Left party on any issue. Moreover, the party aims to appeal to Muslim sentiments in West Bengal, especially in the context of the quota within quota argument raised by the S.P. and the RJD. The Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which rules the countrys most populous State, has also taken a line similar to that of the Trinamool.

In the meantime, the BJP also came up with some realpolitik ruses by stating that some of its members may vote against the Bill in the Lok Sabha. Sushma Swaraj, the partys leader in the Lok Sabha, later added that the party was ready to support amendments that would make the Bill acceptable to all parties, including the S.P., the RJD the and J.D.(U).

The cumulative impact of all this is the possibility of even the Finance Bill getting defeated in the Lok Sabha. The announcement of withdrawal of support by the 21-member S.P. and four-member RJD meant that the UPAs majority would be wafer-thin. According to one calculation, the UPAs strength in the Lok Sabha would be as low as 275, the simple majority figure being 272. A combined strike by the BJP, the Left parties, the S.P., the RJD, the BSP and truant members in the smaller UPA partners could put the government on a sticky wicket.

It was in this context that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee initiated moves for an all-party meeting to evolve a consensus on the Bill before its presentation in the Lok Sabha. Clearly, the Congress leaderships mood was changing from jubilation to a sense of insecurity.

It was the same insecurity it reflected on March 15, when the government announced that it was deferring the presentation of the civil nuclear liability Bill. As in the case of the Womens Reservation Bill, the government has promised widespread consultations on the issue and a cool debate aimed at developing a consensus.

According to sections of the Congress, the party leadership has even sent a message to the Prime Minister asking him to go slow on the civil nuclear liability Bill. It is not clear when these consultative processes on both the Bills would reach a culmination. But one thing is certain. The recess in the functioning of the two Houses of Parliament has indeed given a breather to the party.

Even so, the party leadership realises that it will have to tread softly from now on. As the senior south Indian leader put it, the party can pat itself on the back for its success in the Rajya Sabha, but it will have to move cautiously if it is to avoid major embarrassments for the government.

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