TODAY, senior Union ministers are to meet with the leaders of the opposition parties to sort out differences over the contentious Women’s Reservation Bill.
Over the last weekend, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that his government was ready to sit with the opposition parties to resolve differences over the nuclear liability Bill. Taken together, these convey one message: the UPA government has finally realised that it needs to get off the high horse before it falls off it. Eleven months ago, UPA II came back to power.
Technically, it wasn’t voted back to office.
The coalition leader, the Congress, has just over 200 seats in the 544 member Lok Sabha and even with all its alliance partners, UPA II falls short of a simple majority and has to depend on the support from outside of parties like the Samajwadi Party, Lalu Yadav’s RJD and Mayawati’s BSP for survival.
Yet, senior ministers and officials known to be close to the establishment strutted around the corridors of power and Parliament with an arrogance that belied this fragility. When opposition leaders sought to highlight genuine concerns about important legislation, the government, far from showing regard, displayed a determination to steamroll all opponents.
On the women’s reservation Bill for example, it roped in the support of the opposition BJP and the Communists to bulldoze “ friendly foes” like the SP and the RJD. The chickens may finally be coming home to roost. With a host of important legislation awaiting passage in the two houses of Parliament, the government now realises that it cannot afford to brazen it out any longer. Recently, members of the “ core group” in the government met to review the proceedings of Parliament during the brief but disastrous Budget session.
There is silent acknowledgement that a woeful lack of floor coordination has brought the government to this pass. Nothing illustrates this better than the confusion in the run- up to the introduction of the Nuclear Liability Bill which was to be piloted in the Lok Sabha a fortnight ago.
The Bill formed part of the list of business in the Lok Sabha, but shortly before it was to be introduced, Speaker Meira Kumar informed the house that she had received a request from the government that it does not intend to introduce the Bill in the house as slated. This was something unprecedented in Indian Parliamentary history.
The core group that consists of Pranab Mukherjee, AK Antony, P Chidambaram and Veerappa Moily was joined by Parliamentary Affairs Minister PK Bansal, as is the custom, when matters relating to Parliament and its proceedings are discussed.
Bansal’s earnestness is beyond question but the same cannot be said about his capability or efficiency. I suspect the government wished it had the likes of Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Vayalar Ravi or even Pramod Mahajan or Sushma Swaraj who used their cross party connections to win bipartisan support to push through crucial legislation. Neither Bansal nor V Narayanaswamy, the affable junior minister for parliamentary affairs, seem up to their admittedly difficult assignments.
Many more important and contentious legislation are due to come up in the next few months.
Apart from the nuclear liability and women’s reservation bills, there are the Pensions Funds Regulatory Bill, the Foreign Universities Bill and the Communal Violence Bill, to name just a few.
In all these, the dividing line between supporter and opponent is blurred and the government will have to walk the tightrope to ensure that allies are not annoyed and opponents are won over.
There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. It is all the more important to keep this truism in mind in the coming months when the Congress and its allies set out to face elections in important states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Whether the Congress faces the polls in alliance with the DMK and the Trinamool Congress would depend to a large extent on how the party manages these allies in Parliament.
I understand that the core group, or the “ awesome foursome” as they are known, have in a reversal of recent policy decided to abandon the confrontationist model that has characterised the Congress in the first year of UPA II and adopt a consensual approach. Many of the prime minister’s big ticket reforms will come up for parliamentary scrutiny in the next few months. The Congress will need all the help it can hope to garner.
Already, HRD minister Kapil Sibal has spoken to Murli Manohar Joshi and I see many more hatchets being buried. I predict that UPA II will bend over backwards to win the support of even ideological opponents as long as they have a national perspective, which many of the Congress's own allies don’t.