The winter session of Parliament is coming to a close with little to show for it. Expectations that it would see the passage of the pathbreaker Goods & Service Tax (GST) Bill have been belied. Now, at best, this week will see the passage of some other Bills, though not the one relating to GST.
Not surprisingly the Treasury Benches and the Opposition are blaming each other for the situation. The Congress had appeared to allow its passage and has since back-tracked because it felt that the National Herald case was being revived at the instance of the government.
Whatever truth there is in that charge, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must take the major share of the blame for two reasons.
The task of shepherding support for a Bill in Parliament lies with the ruling party
First, during the 2009-2014 period, it strenuously opposed the GST Bill on specious grounds.
Second, and perhaps more important, the onus is on the BJP government to run the government and Parliament and its failure to do so. Its belligerence and confrontational style are undermining its own government.
At the end of the day, the task of shepherding support for the Bill lies with the ruling party. Elections divide and electoral defeat bruises the ego of the Opposition. The ruling party must reach out to the Opposition and through the process of negotiation and compromise generate a consensus on an issue and push it through Parliament.
Gresham’s law seems to have been adapted by Parliament where good parliamentary practices are being replaced by the bad. So, the Congress parliamentary playbook is simply a mirror image of the BJP’s during 2004-2014.
There are structural issues where the ‘winner takes all’ approach of our election process seems to also prevail in Parliament. In a recent article in Mint, Jessica Seddon has argued that the Opposition has little procedural room to do anything other than what it was doing.
Parliament represents the politics of our times. And these are a bitter, no-holds-barred affair. It is not surprising that this is reflected in the two Houses.
Take, for example, the BJP versus Congress struggle. Statements made by Narendra Modi and the BJP of their desire to create a “Congress-mukt Bharat” (Congress-free India) are part of this. This is fine as election rhetoric, but when it is carried over, as it seems now, into the everyday relationship between the ruling party and the Opposition, it becomes a zero-sum game which is bad for democracy.
Since 1990, parties have alternated in power - and because they do so, it is important for them to maintain a working relationship when one or the other is out of power.
On the other hand, what we see is that a losing party (take the BJP in 2009 and the Congress in 2014) shell-shocked by defeat can throw one long, unseemly tantrum on the floor of Parliament.
When leaders understand this, they are called statesmen. And in the Indian context the last one seems to have been Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The best example of his abilities come not so much from his dealings with the Opposition, but Pakistan.
This was the man who pushed through the nuclear tests and then reached out to Pakistan through his 1999 Lahore visit, where he made it a point to visit the Minar-e-Pakistan. This was just about the time that the Pakistan Army double-cross was taking place across the Kargil heights.
At the end of that year, an Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked by Pakistan-based terrorists, compelling his government to release three of their compatriots. Yet Vajpayee did not give up.
He tried again through the Agra summit of 2001 to make peace with Pakistan. The failure of the summit, the attack on Parliament House and Operation Parakram kept India-Pakistan tensions high through 2002. But in 2003, Vajpayee was back in reaching out to Islamabad and finally the breakthrough came in January 2004 and launched off a period of entente that only ended with Pervez Musharraf’s overthrow.
What was striking about Vajpayee’s handling of an adversary country was the clarity of his vision encapsulated in his statement that “You can change friends, but not neighbours”, as well as his decisive leadership. Peace with the neighbour was not an option, but a compulsion. What seems to be missing in Modi’s approach to both Pakistan and the Congress, is a generosity of vision.
Despite his electoral achievement, his inclination is to give no quarter to those designated as adversaries. Political generosity is not a unilateral process, but one based on “enlightened self- interest.”
Modi comes from a political tradition which emphasises the politics of resentment. One part of Modi seems to want to break with it and emphasise social reform and economic growth, the factors that won him the 2014 election. Unfortunately, the attraction of the dark side remains powerful.
Mail Today December 21, 2015