“It has been stated long ago by poets and thinkers, who may not have had Indian politics in mind, that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The first week of the first session of Parliament amidst the COVID pandemic must have brought this bon mot home to the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in a rather unique way.” This was how Samajwadi Party (S.P.) President and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav chose to describe the developments in the early part of the monsoon session of Parliament, which began on September 14.
He went on to explain his comment by pointing out that one of the the major reasons for the Narendra Modi-led Union government’s decision to curtail the session by doing away with the Question Hour and limiting other parliamentary function was to obstruct the avenues through which opposition parties would have exposed the failures of the government in combating the COVID-19 situation. “And indeed, they had to push through pieces of legislation to legitimise the blatantly anti-people, particularly anti-farmer, ordinances they had issued during the early stages of the pandemic. But, as it turned out, even without the Question Hour and the Zero Hour, the callousness with which the Modi government responded to the hardships of the poor during the COVID-driven lockdowns was unravelled in Parliament itself,” he said.
The S.P. leader added: “Even more importantly, the push to operationalise anti-farmer legislation resulted in the departure of one of the BJP’s long-standing allies, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), from the Union Cabinet, and probably from the NDA itself. Of course, this is not going to rock the Modi government or deplete its huge majority in the Lok Sabha, but there is little doubt that the well laid out plans to cover up its gross failures in diverse sectors and push through draconian measures have got thoroughly exposed. In the process, its machinations to muffle the opposition and cripple Parliament have also been laid bare before the public.”
Akali Minister’s resignation
Akhilesh Yadav spoke to Frontline after the SAD representative in the Union Cabinet, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, dramatically resigned as Food Processing Industries Minister on September 17, even as the discussion on the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, and the Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020, was under way in Parliament. In fact, SAD president and Ferozpur Lok Sabha member Sukhbir Singh Badal, who is Harsimrat Kaur Badal’s husband, announced her resignation even before she had formally submitted it to Prime Minister Modi.
The sequence of events, as they unfolded in the Lok Sabha, was nothing short of a shocker for the BJP leadership. Badal’s speech was peppered with statements against the Congress and the party’s current government in Punjab as well as the first and second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments led by it between 2004 and 2014. In the midst of all this, Badal suddenly said: “I would like to make an announcement that Harsimrat Kaur would resign from the government in protest” (against the farmers-related bills which were being discussed).
This took both the treasury and opposition benches, as well as Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, by surprise. Later, Harsimrat Kaur Badal released her four-page resignation letter addressed to the Prime Minister stating that her decision symbolised the SAD’s vision, its glorious legacy and its commitment to go to any extent to safeguard the interests of the farmers. She followed up the resignation letter with these tweets: “I have resigned from Union Cabinet in protest against anti-farmer ordinances and legislation. Proud to stand with farmers as their daughter and sister. The SAD cannot be a party to anything anti-farmer.”
Naresh Gujral, the SAD’s Rajya Sabha member, indicated that it may be difficult for the party to continue in the NDA. He told mediapersons that there was no way the SAD could continue to be part of the government when the party had decided to vote against a Bill introduced in Parliament after the Union Cabinet approved it.
As pointed out by Akhilesh Yadav, Harsimrat Kaur’s resignation by itself or the SAD’s possible departure from the NDA would not make any difference to the numbers game in the Lok Sabha. Even in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP has to time and again depend on the support of other parties to take forward many vital initiatives, it is bound to rustle up the numbers as and when required.
However, the shock and embarrassment that the SAD move has inflicted on the party as well as its government will continue to rankle the BJP leadership for long. The effect, according to many leaders of the NDA, the BJP and even some associate organisations in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar, is even more biting because this Parliament session was supposed to have been bulldozed into total submission through manoeuvres in the run-up to and during the session.
No data on migrant workers’ exodus
But it was not just the Bills related to farmers’ issues that caused embarrassment for the government. Its highfalutin claims on combating the COVID situation collapsed like a pack of cards on the very first day of the session when Union Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar admitted, through a reply to a written question, that the government had no data on the deaths of migrant labourers during the panic-driven exodus from cities to villages after the hurried announcement of the first lockdown in late March.
Citing the lack of data, Gangwar also said that the “question does not arise” on the issue of compensation for the deaths of migrant labourers. Gangwar’s response was to a pointed question to the Labour Ministry seeking to know whether families of those who had lost their lives while trying to reach home in the coronavirus-induced lockdown had been compensated.
As expected, the government’s written response in Lok Sabha on the first day of the monsoon session led to widespread public outrage and criticism. The opposition parties took it up immediately in both the Houses of Parliament. Former Congress President Rahul Gandhi asked the government whether it believed that no deaths had taken place just because it had not counted the deaths.
“It is sad that there has been no impact on the government. The world has seen their deaths,” he said in a tweet.
Speaking to mediapersons, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac termed the government’s stance “utter callousness”. “The Centre does not care about the deaths of migrant workers that they caused by pushing them into trains, makeshift carts and on foot to the distant homes. At least acknowledge tentative and incomplete data of rail [Shramik trains] and road accidents,” he said.
The public outrage and the parliamentary interventions ultimately forced the Labour Minister to issue clarifications asserting that the government was indeed concerned about plight of the migrant workers the lockdown. It also listed some of the measures the Ministry had taken to address the migrant exodus.
In spite of these evident setbacks in terms of popular perception, the leadership of the government seemed all set to brazen it out. After the passage of the Bills on farmers’ issues, the entire BJP leadership, including Prime Minister Modi, lashed out at the opposition stating that it was trying to mislead the farmers. Modi branded the passage of the Bill as a historic agrarian reform that had created an important moment for the farmers and the agriculture sector of the country.
These Bills will truly free the farmers from middlemen and obstacles—this was the refrain of the BJP leadership as a whole. All of them argued that the legislation would actually “liberate” farmers and that there was no proposal to dismantle the minimum support price (MSP) regime. Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar said: “Contract will not lead to taking over of land. If the corporates build some infrastructure, it will only benefit the farmer in the end… Licence, inspector raj will end, corruption will end, and farmers and traders will be free to buy and sell anywhere in the country.”
The passage of the Bill to bring cooperative banks under the supervision of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) also indicated that the setbacks had not dissuaded the government from going ahead with its agenda. As in the case of the Bills on farmers’ issues, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman argued that this legislation did not mean regulation of cooperative banks by the Central government. The Bill was to regularise the ordinance brought by the government during lockdown. She further argued that consultation with States was required only when legislating on Concurrent List items, and that this Bill was under the Union’s legislative power.
Nirmala Sitharaman went on to add that the government had brought the ordinance primarily to protect depositors as there had been situations in banks that had created hardships for depositors. Opposition members, including Congress leader Manish Tiwari and S. Senthilkumar of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), alleged that the Bill violated the principles of federalism and sought to take away the rights of State governments. The government’s oppressive moves outside Parliament, such as the investigation into the Delhi riots, was another issue that brought some opposition parties together during the early days of the session. Leaders from the Congress, the CPI(M), the CPI, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and the DMK, termed the investigation as one guided by a “manufactured conspiracy theory, which has now begun to falsely implicate political leaders, intellectuals, academicians and activists”.
A delegation comprising Congress treasurer Ahmed Patel, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI general secretary D. Raja, Rajya Sabha member and RJD leader Manoj Kumar Jha and the DMK’s Kanimozhi met President Ram Nath Kovind and pointed out that leaders like Sitaram Yechury had been targeted as part of this motivated exercise.
In a petition to the President, the leaders said: “This is a disturbing trend that raises serious questions over the manner of such investigations. A credible and unbiased probe is crucial to restore public trust in the law and order machinery of the state. The investigation cannot be allowed to become a fishing and roving expedition aimed at causing a chilling effect on dissent and protest in the country. We… urge you to call upon the Government of India to institute an inquiry into this investigation under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, headed by sitting/retired judge(s).”
They also said: “There are several publicly documented accounts and videos of police being complicit in the violence, directing mobs pelting stones, or looking the other way when mobs were indulging in violence. The notable silence in the charge sheets on the role of leaders associated with the BJP, who gave inflammatory speeches, raises serious concern about the impartiality of the probe. Since December 2019, there are publicly documented speeches by leaders of the ruling party instigating and provoking violence against those involved in the anti-CAA protests, including that of a Minister raising slogans to ‘shoot the traitors’.”
The petition said: “The entire investigation appears to be aimed at arriving at a premeditated theory about a conspiracy propounded by the Home Minister [Amit Shah] in the Lok Sabha in March 2020, before any investigation had even begun into the riots. The FIR… regarding this ‘conspiracy’ being investigated by the Special Cell, in which the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) has been invoked, is being used to carry out a fishing and roving inquiry against activists and young persons who were involved with the protests.”
Lack of all-out unity
However, the initiative of these five parties only signified a limited coordination and joint action among opposition parties. A larger, all-encompassing unity was still absent among the opposition parties despite all of them agreeing, in principle, that autocracy had become the order of the day in the Modi regime. The absence of such unition was evident form the opposition’s failure to enforce counting in the election of the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson and was later reflected inability to agree on unanimously seeking parameters for discussions on the floor of the House. The Congress has been demanding a full-fledged discussion in Parliament on the Chinese aggression, but it could not get support for the demand from other parties.
On the issue of pending GST dues to States, the Trinamool Congress brought together seven other regional parties without inviting the Congress and protested before the Gandhi statue in Parliament. The other parties that attended the protest were the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the RJD, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the DMK, the S.P., the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena. Providing the rationale for keeping out the Congress, Trinamool leader Derek O’Brien said that it was “increasingly becoming clear to us” that in Parliament, the regional parties were finding it easier to coordinate with each other to strategise. “The Congress can no longer decide the subject and then the dosage of opposition strategy. They cannot do something in the States and seek support in Parliament,” he said, unravelling the differences in unmistakable terms.
Obviously, these differences within the opposition add to the manoeuvrability of the ruling dispensation in the current session. Leaders of the BJP and NDA do gloat on this aspect from time to time. Still, as Akhilesh Yadav pointed out, the perception setbacks have brought down the level of exultation among the BJP members of Parliament. Harsimrat Kaur’s resignation has also strengthened the political impression that the BJP is a party that does not value the views of its alliance partners and is not capable of following coalition dharma.
The expectation and hope among opposition parties, including the Congress, the Left and regional forces, is that this could have some impact on the impending Bihar Assembly election given that these developments have come just ahead of the election due later this year.
The fact that the SAD parted ways with the government on issues related to the farming community also buttresses this expectation, since Bihar is a State where farmers’ issues play an important role in elections.