In a jolt to the United Progressive Alliance’s effort to fashion a consensus for reform, its defiant and petulant communist allies on Tuesday came to blows with their own coalition ally over a Bill proposing to set up a Maritime University in Tamil Nadu.
With the UPA coalition supported by the Left parties from outside already backtracking on key economic reforms including divestment, Tuesday’s clashes also reveal fresh rifts in relations among its partners. The UPA had come to power on the promise of sweeping reforms in sectors ranging from agriculture to the judiciary.
As reported by Mint on 13 March, the mandate to fasttrack reform comes to the Congress right from the top. Party president Sonia Gandhi has given a clear signal that even contentious amendments to labour laws should be undertaken. The Left parties, will only dig in their heels and step up their opposition, making it even more difficult for the UPA to thrash out a consensus.
West Bengal and Tamil Nadu MPs clash in Lok Sabha
Trouble began the moment shipping minister T.R. Baalu rose in the Lok Sabha to introduce the Indian Maritime University Bill, 2007, which proposes a university at Chennai with campuses in Kolkata and Mumbai.
The Left has long demanded this university in Kolkata. Angry that Chennai was chosen, leaders including Anil Basu and Varkala Radhakrishnan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) rushed to the well of the house where they shouted slogans against the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
In their bid to block the Bill, the Left indulged in 10 minutes of shouting, progressing to pushing and shoving. Just before either side came to blows, a human shield consisting of DMK leader S.S. Palanimanickam, assisted by Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party of India (RPI), Shiv Sena’s Mohan Rawale and others protected Baalu. House marshalls were summoned to ferry errant MPs away.
The house was adjourned four times, until the Bill was finally introduced. But even when calm was restored and the warring factions had apologised profusely for their “unparliamentary” behaviour, tempers soared.
The Left sulked over “not being consulted” by the UPA on policy matters and said it wanted more involvment, or more disruptions were on their way.
The Opposition was quick to seize mileage from the fracas. “A phrase had come into circulation during the NDA rule —‘coalition dharma’. Today, that phrase has been violated in such an ugly manner. This is nothing short of civil war within the UPA ,” accused BJP leader L.K. Advani.
Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said, “While we regret it, the incident happened only because the government didn’t consult us before the introduction of this Bill,” he said.
“We are not part of the government because we have our differences,” Yechury said, adding that it was up to the government to consult the Left in advance to avoid such incidents. No doubt equally embarrased by his allies, Congress party spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi could only advise the BJP to refrain from “fishing in troubled waters.”