New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance or UPA government will approach the final leg of Parliament’s Budget session on 15 April with diminished numbers that will force the ruling coalition to restrict its legislative agenda to items on which political consensus exists.
Signalling tough times for the government, the opposition, bolstered by the defection of UPA supporters Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), plans to bring a cut motion in Parliament against the Finance Bill to protest an increase in fuel prices.
The government will have to ensure that it has, at all times during the debate, sufficient numbers in the House to ensure the defeat of the motion; if the motion is passed, the government would have to demit office.
United front? Opposition leaders Lalu Prasad (third from left), Om Prakash Chautala, A.B. Bardhan, Chandrababu Naidu, Mulayam Singh Yadav and others on Monday after a meeting to discuss rising prices. Arvind Yadav / HT
As a result, the government’s focus will be on ensuring passage of the Finance Bill, which would signal parliamentary nod for the Budget that finance minister Pranab Mukherjee presented on 26 February.
“We are in such a condition that the government can’t take any risk. We will have to pass the Finance Bill... Our priorities had to be reconsidered,” a Congress minister, who did not want to be identified, said.
The Congress has 207 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha after last year’s general election, but its leeway has been reduced considerably since Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP and Lalu Prasad’s RJD withdrew support to the UPA in March, in protest against the Women’s Reservation Bill that seeks to set apart 33% of seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women.
The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Left parties and the so-called Third Front of parties allied neither with the UPA nor with BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have come together against price rise and fertilizer subsidy cuts.
“In the new scenario, the government may have to reposition its priorities because price rise is an issue it has not been able to tackle yet. It will put the government on its toes...and it will have problems on the passage of certain Bills on which they had confidence (in the beginning),” said Vidhu Verma, a political science professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Apart from discussions and passage of detailed demands for grants under the general and railway budgets, Parliament, which is expected to adjourn on 7 May, has before it 16 Bills for consideration and passage. Ten more Bills will be considered if parliamentary standing committees have submitted their reports on the proposed laws; 64 Bills are to be introduced, according to think tank PRS Legislative Research.
The UPA has been unable to forge a consensus on crucial legislation such as the Women’s Reservation Bill, on which Congress president Sonia Gandhi has staked her personal prestige, and the nuclear liability Bill on compensation that energy firms would have to pay for damage caused by potential nuclear accidents.
“The government must understand that there is always a limit to stretch. With such a fragile majority, the way ahead for any ruling alliance is the path of consensus and not the path of confrontation. This is just a humble suggestion from a responsible opposition,” said Arun Jaitley, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
The BJP leadership has authorized Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, to coordinate with other parties “to expose” the government on the issue of rising prices. The BJP has 116 seats in the Lok Sabha. The 13 non-Congress, non-BJP parties that have proposed the cut motion have 87.
Senior Left party members said they want to take advantage of popular disenchantment against the government over rising prices to embarrass the ruling coalition.
The 13 parties have called for a nationwide strike on 27 April. For the week ending 27 March, food price inflation rose to 17.7% from 16.35% in the previous week, according to government data. Wholesale price inflation rose to 9.89% in February.
The Congress shrugged aside the opposition threat. “If at all the opposition does walk the talk, Congress and its allies are absolutely prepared and there is no cause for concern or alarm,” said party spokesman and Lok Sabha member of Parliament Manish Tewari.
Columnist and political analyst T.V.R. Shenoy said he does not foresee a major threat for the government, at least until the assembly elections due next year in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
“The priority of the government will definitely be the Finance Bill, but the UPA has to get the women’s Bill also passed because if it doesn't, it will be a huge loss of face for Sonia Gandhi,” said Shenoy.