Throughout this month, the anniversary celebrations of Narendra Modi-led Union Government are being held across the states, where a long list of government achievements are being read out by Union Ministers and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders. Modi-supporters have every reason to be cheerful with high-scoring report cards being handed out by some sections of the media. However, the biggest challenges to this government comes from one of its own branches: the legislature, or more specifically, the Rajya Sabha.
In the past six months, we have witnessed the government face major setbacks in Parliament, largely due to a strong, united and vocal opposition in the Rajya Sabha. While one expects the rare slip-up in Parliamentary floor management, this government has displayed a unflattering knack for stumbling at critical Parliamentary hurdles time and again. Three of these stumbles may have done irrevocable damage already and set the stage for an interesting second year.
Motion of Thanks to President's Address
The Parliament begins every calendar year with the President's Address in which the agenda of the union government is laid out before a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament. The union cabinet takes care to draft and approves the President's address, as it is the primary vision document of the government. Following the President's address, it is customary that both Houses of Parliament engage in a discussion on its key aspects and propose a Motion of Thanks.
During the ensuing discussion, Members of Parliament are at liberty to introduce Amendments to the Motion of Thanks, to express any misgivings they may have in the government's policies.
"This was the fourth time in the history of the Indian Parliament that the Motion of Thanks was successfully amended through a majority vote."
In this year's Motion of Thanks, the government found itself in a sticky situation when certain Members of Parliament from the opposition ranks, led by Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), included an amendment, expressing dissatisfaction with the Government on action proposed to fight corruption and retrieve black money, which read:
But this House regrets "that there is no mention in the address about the failure of the government to curb the high level corruption and to bring back black money". This was the fourth time in the history of the Indian Parliament that the Motion of Thanks was successfully amended through a majority vote, thereby delivering the first blow to a government still finding its feet inside Parliament.
Reform Bills Sent to Select Committee
The second major Parliamentary setback was during the passage of amendments to the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill, Mines and Minerals Act (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill and, more recently, the Constitution (122nd Amendment) Act (Goods and Services Tax Bill). The government's high-handed approach coupled with a sense of majoritarian bravado in the Lok Sabha came unstuck in the face of stiff resistance led by Congress in the Rajya Sabha. In all three cases, the government was forced to refer the Bills to Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha, thereby handing out a moral victory to the Opposition Benches.
Understandably, the government is now wary of bringing key reform Bills without due discussion and stakeholder consultation. Another flagship reform agenda -The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill - is stuck in limbo with the government avoiding Rajya Sabha altogether and re-promulgating the ordinance for the third time. It can only be assumed that the government is careful to not use up all its Parliamentary goodwill too soon and has held back on the big tussle which will ensue when the Land Acquisition Bill is eventually brought to the Rajya Sabha.
Private Members Bill on Transgender
The third major blow landed when the government was caught completely unaware when a non-controversial Private Member Bill on the Rights of Transgender Persons was passed during the Budget Session. That this was the first Private Members Bill to be passed in 46 years sums up this government's parliamentary management strategy.
On Friday afternoons, during the Parliamentary session, Private Members i.e. those who are not Ministers of the government are allowed to list and discuss Business that they think are relevant. On alternate weeks, Members are allowed to deliberate on legislations introduced by them. Tiruchi Siva, belonging to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, had introduced a Private Member Bill on the Rights of Transgender Persons. This Bill was discussed on 27 February 2015 and 13 March 2015 and was taken up for voting on 24 April 2015.
Over the past four decades, Members had withdrawn their Private Member Bills after receiving due assurance from the government. It may also be understood as that past governments, after getting a sense of the House in support of the Bill, had always managed to sufficiently assure the Private Member that they would bring an alternate legislation that would take care of the issue raised. However, on this occasion, the government was unable to persuade Tiruchi Siva to retract his Bill.
"This incident may now well have opened the gates to other Private Members who wish to bring in rights-based legislation and similarly force the government into taking a stand."
Concerned that the government would be seen to be voting against a legislation that seeks to improve the lives of a marginalized community, the government was forced to vote along with Tiruchi Siva and ultimately helped pass the Private Member Bill. This incident may now well have opened the gates to other Private Members who wish to bring in rights-based legislation and similarly force the government into taking a stand. For example, legislative amendments to criminalize marital rape have been introduced by Avinash Pandey of Congress and Kanimozhi of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and when this issue is discussed, the government may find itself boxed into a corner again.
While the first political cracks seem to be appearing in government over the l'affaire Lalit Modi, there are dark Parliamentary clouds looming over the impending Monsoon Session. If the government does not rework its parliamentary floor management strategy to take on board the concerns from diverse political stakeholders and expand consultative processes, expect this to live up to be a stormy session indeed.