More than legislative business, political discord is expected to dominate the truncated winter session of both houses of Parliament, which starts on Thursday.
The three-week session will end early because of assembly elections in Gujarat in mid-December. This will allow just a dozen sittings, excludingholidays and Fridays, which are reserved for private members’ Bills.
A file photo of parliamentary affairs minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi
Parliamentary affairs minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, while releasing a wish list of 14 Bills for introduction and 16 Bills for consideration and passing, said that legislations pending from the previous sessions will be mainly taken up this time. However, the tentative list didn’t include a long-pending legislation on fake drugs, which, health minister Anbumani Ramadoss has repeatedly promised to introduce and has said would be a priority for the winter session.
The list of pending Bills includes legislations on labour laws, banking regulation and factories, none of which, analysts say, will be easy to push through in the absence of a political consensus between the ruling Congress-led UPA government and the Left parties.
Several parties, including the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the Left Front, which supports the government from the outside, will seek to debate the India-US civilian nuclear agreement, which nearly brought down the Congress government. Meanwhile, the Congress and its allies are likely to quietly revel in the discomfiture of the Left parties, whose controversial handling of violent unrest in West Bengal’s Nandigram area over land acquisition for special economic zones, is also likely to generate intense parliamentary debate.
Meanwhile, it appears that the Left parties may have staged a tactical retreat by signalling a softening of their opposition to the India-US civilian nuclear agreement, as they focus on tiding over the crisis in West Bengal, which is ruled by the Left Front.
“It stands to reason that a more vulnerable Left would be more amenable to flexibility, but I don’t think any of the parties has really revised its entrenched position on the nuclear deal,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. “Either you find the 123 Agreement agreeable or you don’t. If you don’t, as the Left maintains, why allow the government to talk to IAEA? It is surely a strange stance. And if the Left were to gradually give up its opposition to the deal, it would be simply finished. How would it explain the past three months?”
For the record, D. Raja, national secretary of the Communist Party of India, maintained: “There has been no change in our stance.” The Left’s position is expected to be clear after the next meeting of the UPA-Left panel on the nuclear deal on Friday.
One political scenario has the Congress calling the Left’s bluff and seeking early Lok Sabha polls if—and it is a big if—somehow, incumbent BJP chief minister Narendra Modi loses in an upset verdict in Gujarat.
Meanwhile, political analysts caution against seeing the Left’s softening—it is likely to agree to the government discussing the nuclear deal with the International Atomic Research Agency without actually signing an India-specificsafeguards agreement—as a breakthrough.
India needs to conclude a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, before getting the deal ratified by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group and, finally, the US Congress. Some observers see a March-April deadline for the US Congress to approve the hard-fought deal as attention in the US is then likely to shift from policy issues to a general election for the next US president to replace George W. Bush.
“The so-called shift on the part of the Left is going to amount to nothing,” insists Bharat Karnad, a national security expert and an occasional contributor to Mint’s opinion pages.
“It is merely an attempt to appear reasonable, just a show of flexibility. The Left is yet to agree to IAEA safeguards in perpetuity, which is what this deal is about.”
A Parliament member from the Left Front, who didn’t want to be identified, says: “Nandigram has been simmering for months, especially since the police firing of 14 March, but it blew up at the wrong time. This would be the worst time for us to pull the rug from under the UPA.”
Indeed, Abhishek Singhvi, a Congress party spokesman, highlights the attention Nandigram will get in Parliament. “Obviously, the debate on the India-US nuclear deal, when it takes place, will be the showpiece of the session,” said Singhvi. “No less important would be potential discussions on the Tehelka magazine sting (alleging involvement of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat in 2002) and Nandigram.”
From the Left’s perspective, Raja said there are a number of issues they would like to discuss in the current session. “Price rise, farmers’ distress, the delay in notification of the legislation on the rights of Scheduled Tribes and other forest dwellers to forests, the minimum support price of paddy and the government’s refusal to bring in a legislation on women’s reservation are some of these issues,” Raja listed, noticeably leaving out Nandigram.
The BJP, which has been quick to dub the Left’s shift in stance as a bargain with the UPA over Nandigram, has already given notices for discussion on Nandigram, the nuclear deal, price rise, growing influence of Naxalites, implementation of the Sachar Committee report and the alleged appeasement of minorities through the Prime Minister’s 15-point programme. Unlike the previous session when the BJP stalled Parliament over its demand for a joint parliamentary committee to study the nuclear deal, though, this time the party is ready for a debate even under the rule that does not entail voting.
“It is not a climbdown or dilution of our position,” says V.K. Malhotra, the BJP’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha. “Our stand on the deal, our opposition, remains the same. All we are saying is we are ready for a debate.” Dasmunsi says so is the government. Just that no date has been fixed yet for the debate.