Debating India

Setbacks for the Government

Saturday 2 January 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

in New Delhi

THE curtains came down on the winter session of Parliament on December 23, marking the end of another exercise in futility for the Central Government. As spokesmen for the Bharatiya Janata Party sought desperately to put a positive spin on events, what stood out in stark detail was the collapse of constructive political dialogue. Coalition governance is necessarily premised on the cultivation of consensus. The BJP-led ruling coalition is yet to imbibe this fundamental rule of political engagement in large part because it has repeatedly shown its disdain for dialogue.

Legislative achievements for the Vajpayee Government were curiously limited to the introduction of various bills in Parliament. The level of acrimony surrounding these bills and the Government’s own infirmities of political conviction made the accomplishment of this preliminary step a matter to celebrate. Except for a host of minor bills, which were adopted after a cursory reading in both Houses, no legislative business of a substantive nature was transacted.

Two of the key bills the Government had set its heart on passing - the Insurance Regulatory Authority Bill and the Indian Patents Act Amendment Bill - made no worthwhile progress. Caught in a pincer between global instabilities and the domestic economic downturn, the Government was keen on sending an affirmative signal to international finance through the passage of these bills. That there was little to show in terms of the Government’s resolve to hold fast to the course of economic reform marks a serious blow to the policy orientation that views the performance of stockmarkets as a barometer of overall economic health. That Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha added his own note of pessimism to the gloom - in the shape of a bleak forecast of the overall fiscal deficit for the year - only underscored the multiple vulnerabilities of the Government.

The Women’s Reservations Bill, seeking to set aside one-third of the seats in legislative institutions for women, was introduced after a heated row between the Government and sections of the Opposition. Part of the fury of Rashtriya Loktantrik Morcha (RLM) members was expended in the course of an unseemly scuffle with the combative Trinamul Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee. When the Government sought to introduce the bill in the chastened mood that prevailed the morning after, the RLM kept up its chorus of protests and in a gesture that has become the norm, trooped into the well of the Lok Sabha to register its protest. But with the overwhelming support of the Congress(I), the Left and the Treasury benches, the Government was able to declare the bill introduced. Discussion and passage of the bill have been put off for another day and are likely to pose another set of challenges for the Government.

The key issue that now remains to be resolved is the demand made in certain political quarters that the quota for women in Parliament and State legislatures should be further divided in accordance with caste and community. While the demand for a sub-quota based on religion is not known to enjoy significant support, the RLM’s insistence on special benefits for "other backward classes" has its sympathisers in rival political camps, including the BJP. As part of the deal to facilitate the introduction of the bill, the Government has undertaken to explore all the enabling measures under the Constitution that would make this special dispensation for the OBCs a reality. The moment to discuss this question has now arrived, said Parliamentary Affairs Minister Madan Lal Khurana, in a rare moment of self-assurance.

Events that followed had a suggestion of the farcical about them. Overriding serious reservations within its own ranks, the Government introduced the Insurance Bill for consideration by the Lok Sabha the following day. This followed the conclusion of a makeshift truce within the BJP, which remains seriously divided over the issue. Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi was immediately confronted with the demand that the bill should go before a Joint Select Committee for a detailed consideration and possible amendment. Even as Khurana, on behalf of the Government, was laboriously spelling out the implications of reference to a joint committee of both Houses as against the Standing Committee, the Speaker announced his decision in favour of a Joint Select Committee.

Much avoidable confusion followed. At his customary press conference after the conclusion of the session, Balayogi was extremely fuzzy about the status of the Insurance Bill. All he could say was that the matter would be dealt with in accordance with established norms.

After capitulating in the matter of the Deputy Speaker’s election, the BJP then turned its attention to the Patents Amendment Bill. High drama was to follow with Industry Minister Sikandar Bakht having to run the gauntlet of conflicting demands from BJP party ideologues who stand firm on the plank of "swadeshi economics". Although a truce had been concluded on the insurance front, Bakht had to put his job on the line to win the half-hearted approval of his party ranks for the Patents Bill. That, however, did not quite end the woes of the Government. The endorsement of the Congress(I) was a necessary condition for the passage of the Patents Bill, and this was secured only well after its introduction. An amendment that the Congress(I) proposed, exempting traditional systems of Indian medicine and materials already in the public domain from the grant of exclusive marketing rights - which in informed reading is a constraint even more irksome than patents - was eagerly accepted by the Government as its own. But the Congress(I) itself was divided, and it took all the persuasion of Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherji, its two staunchest proponents of liberalisation, to marshal the ranks in the Rajya Sabha for the vote in favour of the bill.

What followed was anti-climactic as the Government made a hash of its solitary legislative achievement. Passage in the Lok Sabha should have been easier, since the BJP and the Congress(I) between them had a comfortable margin of seats. But the Congress(I) insisted that all members be intimated well in advance of the amendments it had moved. The demand was perfectly reasonable but the BJP floor managers had little time for this basic preliminary on account of their preoccupation with the introduction of bills on the creation of three new states.

Intent on introducing the bills to create the states of Uttaranchal, Vananchal and Chattisgarh, the Government was on the last two days of the session concerned mainly about defusing opposition from a constituent of the ruling coalition, the Akali Dal, to the proposed boundaries of Uttaranchal. Another concern was the stated resolve of Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal that it would block the introduction of the bill on Vananchal. Friendly persuasion having failed, the BJP’s floor managers chose to divide the Opposition by manipulating the schedule of introduction. The bills on Uttaranchal and Chattisgarh were introduced ahead of the bill on Vananchal. The Government then just rode out the customary storming of the well by irate members of the Opposition by declaring the bills introduced.

It then seemed to dawn on the Government that the Patents Bill was still pending. Of course it was too late by then. In a desperate damage-limitation exercise, Khurana claimed an alibi for his default; presidential assent for the introduction of the Patents Bill had not been received, he pleaded, unmindful of the procedures and rules governing the matter. The rejoinder from Rashtrapati Bhavan was swift in coming since the bill had not been put up for presidential assent at all. The Government then unconvincingly turned its fury on the alleged infirmities of the Congress(I)’s support. It managed to convince none but the BJP’s shrinking band of diehards. In the end, Khurana apologised to the President for having caused the confusion. In a letter to the President he said that he was sorry that he had created an impression through his media briefing that the bill had been sent to the President for his approval after its passage in the Rajya Sabha.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Vol. 16, No. 01, Jan. 02 - 15, 1999

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