Isolated Congress party signals that disruption will continue to be its preferred tactical parliamentary weapon.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's heartfelt appeal to allow Parliament to function on Tuesday elicited a positive response even from groups like the Janata Dal-United that are rivals of the government. However, his outreach failed to melt the Congress, which was isolated but signalled that disruption would continue to be its preferred tactical parliamentary weapon.
Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma, leader and deputy leader of the Congress in the Upper House who attended the all-party meeting called by the prime minister ahead of the budget session of Parliament beginning on February 23, nodded vigorously in agreement when the PM said disrupting Parliament served no useful purpose for either the government or the Opposition.
But Sharma said: "Hum shareer par aghaat sahan kar sakte hain, lekin dil par chot nahin (we can withstand an assault on our person, but not on our heart). Ghulam Nabi Azad explained the context: the PM's statement at an election rally in Assam some days ago that Parliament was not being allowed to run because of the whims of one family.
"You should remember that sacrifices have been made by five generations of this family to the cause of India, to ensure India is kept together," Azad said.
It was left to the normally mild-mannered Naresh Gujral of the Shiromani Akali Dal to retort: "If you are saying that five generations of the family have made sacrifices, then that is not enough. More sacrifice is needed". Later, Sharma and Azad stayed back after the other leaders had left, presumably to discuss something with the PM separately.
Interestingly, at the meeting Modi pointedly and categorically distanced himself from the events in Arunachal Pradesh where 11 Bharatiya Janata Party MLAs have supported a breakaway group from the Congress to make a bid to unseat a ruling Congress government and form a government of defectors. The PM said, suo motu, that not only had he made his disapproval of the Arunachal Pradesh events clear to his party colleagues, but had also told governors privately that this kind of thing was unacceptable and should be avoided. Home Minister Rajnath Singh was not present at the meeting.
The Congress and the Left parties were clear that if they were not given a hearing, they would ensure that the government did not get a hearing either. The Left parties, which were represented by D Raja and Mohammad Salim, said: "We will not disrupt the House and will allow bills to be passed. But the issues that agitate and worry us must get a hearing too".
The PM said: "You have as much right to make demands on me as the rest of India. I am the prime minister for India, not just for the BJP". He added: "It is my responsibility to listen to you -- and not just to you but to everyone".
"The PM seemed eager to discuss every issue. He was ready to hear whatever people and other political parties wanted to ventilate," said a leader of a regional party who was present at the meeting.
The Samajwadi Party's Ramgopal Yadav said: "Our party does not enjoy the kind of strength it takes to disrupt Parliament". JD-U's Sharad Yadav said: "While we continue to have faith in disruption of Parliament as a tactic, you can't do it again and again. In any case, our party does not have the strength to disrupt Parliament repeatedly". The JD-U is the Congress's alliance partner.
Bhratrihari Mahtab of the Biju Janata Dal was clear that disruption of Parliament was erosion of democracy and was unacceptable. 'We want Parliament to run,' he told the PM.
Trinamool Congress's Derek O'Brien said: "We might not be present for the entire duration of the budget session because of our preoccupation with the assembly elections but we are eager to see the House function". A member of an opposition party present there said: "The Congress was completely isolated. But for the Left parties, no one seemed to be in support of their methods in the two houses".
The BJP's position was clear: "Because of Rahul Gandhi's bent of mind two sessions have been washed out. The BJP would like Parliament to function. Our government is making all efforts for the smooth functioning of Parliament. The Congress is once again looking at issues to stall Parliament. We hope that in the interest of the country, better sense will prevail," BJP national secretary Sidharth Nath Singh said.
Government sources said if the Opposition continued to stall Parliament, decision-making would increasingly be done through executive order.
Government sources said that at the meeting of leaders of all major parties in both the Houses of Parliament, that the PM made his opening remarks and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu intervened briefly and most of the talking during the two-hour 15-minute-long meeting was done by leaders of various parties conveying their concern over persistent disruptions witnessed over the last two sessions.
Other opposition leaders said disruption of proceedings was lowering the image of Parliament. "Even children are making fun of the Parliamentarians; the poor are the worst affected; regional and other small parties are being deprived of opportunities to raise issues of concern for their states and people; for parties like the BSP whose leaders do not go to TV studios, Parliament is the only forum for raising issues concerning weaker sections and this is being denied and the economic agenda of the country is getting derailed".
Several of the over 30 leaders who attended the meeting said that with the government willing to discuss all issues of larger concern, there was no reason to disrupt proceedings.
Responding to the Jawaharlal Nehru University incident raised by the leaders of Congress and CPM, Jaitley said the implications of the incidents need to be understood properly. He asked if any responsible political party can endorse the slogans made at the so-called protest meet in JNU; and that all should await the inquiry report in the matter.
Naidu said the government was willing to walk the extra mile to enable smooth functioning of Parliament and details of legislative agenda would be informed to the parties at the all-party meeting on February 22.
According to sources, "The force and spirit of the demands for smooth functioning of Parliament made at Tuesday's meeting would make any party think twice before thinking of disrupting the proceedings."
Image: PM Narendra Modi at the all-party meet. Photograph: Kamal Singh/PTI