New Delhi: When the Opposition on Wednesday demanded the Centre declare that the country is afflicted by drought and offer financial assistance to farmers, it wasn’t leader of Opposition L.K. Advani or any other representative from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), leader Sharad Yadav who raised the issue and initiated the discussion.
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Yadav, whose party has 20 members in the lower house of Parliament, is also the convenor of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The BJP has 116 seats in the 543-member House and is, officially, the main opposition party.
“The BJP has become invisible in the Lok Sabha. Instead, Sharad Yadav has emerged as the leader of Opposition,” said Congress member of Parliament (MP) P.C. Chacko.
The result is that it has suddenly become easier for the new look Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to conduct legislative business, ever since the new Parliament was convened in June.
Thus, when railway minister Mamata Banerjee criticized the performance of her predecessor Lalu Prasad, who was then one of the leading lights of the previous UPA government, and said she would prepare a white paper on the dismal state of the finances of the railways, the BJP failed to exploit the opportunity inherent in the UPA criticizing the UPA.
The party itself claims it is providing “constructive opposition”, but analysts believe its performance in the House is a manifestation of the defeat it suffered in the 15th general election and the subsequent infighting between senior party leaders. Meanwhile, the Congress, inspired by the unexpected margin of its electoral victory, has taken the leadership of key political causes such as reservation for women—especially after it managed to swing the appointment of Meira Kumar as Lok Sabha’s first woman speaker.
Leading the charge: Sharad Yadav. S. Burmaula / Hindustan Times
According to data compiled by PRS Legislative Research, an independent research entity, some of the smaller opposition parties such as the JD(U), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) have collectively initiated 24% of the total Parliamentary debates in this session, as against 23% by the BJP. This is in contrast to their strength in the House: while little over one in five members of the Lok Sabha belong to the BJP, a little over one in 10 belong to these five parties.
In fact, there has been a dramatic change in the new Lok Sabha, with hardly any time being lost due to interruptions. This is particularly critical in the current session; the government has been forced to crunch the budget session to little over a month so as to ensure passage of the Union Budget ahead of 31 July—when the deadline for the vote-on-account allowing government spending, in the interim period till a new government takes charge, expires.
This is in contrast to the state of affairs last year. In 2008, the Lok Sabha had only two sessions (it usually has three sessions every year), the Budget session and the extended monsoon session from July to December. The Lok Sabha worked for only 46 days in 2008, the lowest ever in a calender year. Since 1952, on average, the Lok Sabha has had 97 sittings per year. However, 2008 was also one of the most politically controversial years with the government coming under scathing attacks from the opposition over issues such as the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, the terror attacks in Mumbai, and job losses on account of the global economic slowdown.
Losing the way: L.K. Advani. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Apart from claiming that it is being a constructive opposition, the BJP also says its strategy in the House is part of an effort to groom new leaders.
Sushma Swaraj, deputy leader of the BJP in the Lok Sabha, said senior party leaders stayed away from the Budget discussions because the party wanted to encourage its new and young MPs to participate in the debates. “We have developed a system, wherein at least one of the three speakers on every issue will be a new MP. It is a conscious decision and does not mean that the seniors will not be speaking. Most of the MPs would be given an opportunity to exhibit their talent by speaking on important subjects,” said Swaraj.
Of the 54 speakers fielded by the party in the Lok Sabha during the Budget debate, around 30 were first-time MPs.
However, BJP leaders privately admit that with both former Union finance ministers from the party—Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha—as well as former Union commerce minister Arun Shourie (a Rajya Sabha member) staying away due to differences, the onus of leading the debate fell on leaders such as Murli Manohar Joshi (Lok Sabha) and Venkaiah Naidu (Rajya Sabha).
Congressmen claim that the differences between BJP leaders were visible in Lok Sabha. “Advani was apparently uncomfortable whenever (finance minister) Pranab Mukherjee and (human resource development minister) Kapil Sibal referred to Joshi during their replies (to the discussions on general Budget and demands for grants on education respectively). It is a known fact that the two are not on good terms,” Chacko said.
To be sure, some analysts say it might be too early to judge the BJP’s performance in the House. However, the predominant view is that the party hasn’t been effective.
“The opposition has been ineffective. Fundamentally, BJP does not find finance and economics a very comfortable topic and with their self-styled experts on the issues staying away, things seem difficult for the party,” said Prafull Goradia, author of The Saffron Book and a former BJP MP. Goradia, however, added that it is still too early to write off the party.
“What the BJP needs to understand is that a budget session is the most important of all sessions and it would be a deficiency of thought on the party’s part to say that we are utilizing the session as a nursery for the new members.”
Is it a trend?
“It is too early to say anything. There has to be some major legislation or policy announcement for the opposition to make a noise. Most discussions till now have been around topical issues,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank.
“Of course, the BJP is in disarray. They have to clear their internal confusion before they take on the government. Further, immediately after you lose an election, you don’t quite feel entitled to make so much noise... However, it is too early to say anything yet... Even in the Budget, there weren’t any huge issues over which people could scream... There were no major policy announcements.”
BJP leaders, meanwhile, continue to defend themselves.
“This is the first session and the first Budget of the newly-elected government and they should ideally be given time to chart out their action plan. We are a responsible opposition and also understand that we have a crucial role to play,” said deputy leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and BJP leader S.S. Ahluwalia.
Meanwhile, some Congressmen, including a Union minister, privately admit that the BJP’s lacklustre approach in the House would “smoothen things for the Treasury benches.” But publicly, the party says that the BJP’s role is crucial.
“The concept of opposition stems out of the British idea of ‘her majesty’s loyal opposition’. The role of the opposition is to question the government and the BJP should do it constructively,” said Congress MP Manish Tewari.
Leaders of the CPM, which finds its strength drastically reduced to 16 MPs from 42 (excluding the speaker) in the last House, agree that the BJP has been maintaining an unusually low profile in this session.
“Since the beginning of this Lok Sabha, we have observed that the BJP is not playing the role it did earlier and is changing its attitude towards the government,” said Basudeb Acharia, leader of the CPM in the House.
Liz Mathew contributed to this story.