In a serious escalation towards even more political discord, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha has suspended 25 Congress MPs for what she termed "grave disorder". That the BJP has now taken a U-turn on parliamentary tactics that it championed not so long ago should not be surprising. But, were this like a conventional U-turn, like on Aadhaar, FDI in retail, GST etc., we would remind the BJP of its stance while in opposition, call NDA2 a U-turn sarkar, have fun at their expense and move on until the next U-turn, which incidentally would be on the land bill. But, this is not an ordinary U-turn. It smacks of brazenness, contempt for dissent and disdain for institutional accountability. We must not laugh this one off. This is a serious matter.
A bit of context will help. The Congress and others opposition parties have been seeking the resignation of Mrs. Sushma Swaraj for her role in the Lalit Modi scandal. There is plenty of information in the public domain, including on Mrs. Swaraj's Twitter account, to conclude that her continuation in the Modi cabinet is untenable. Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje's case is also clear cut. If we had good governance, we could bring multiple charges against her, including money laundering and working against the national interest. Mr. Shivraj Singh Chauhan has much to answer for in the infamous "Vyapam scam", which has rocked the future of so many youngsters in Madhya Pradesh. Seeking removal of tainted leaders is a legitimate political stand in the public interest. These cases are no less important than the ones BJP raised when it was in opposition. Interestingly, social media was abuzz with an image from 2011 showing the current Speaker disrupting parliament along with her colleagues. If she had a right to seek accountability then, opposition MPs have exactly the same right now. The 15th Lok Sabha was the "least productive" of all time. You can thank the BJP for that. Yet, at no time was BJP in danger of losing half its MPs to suspension.
"The Speaker did not just suspend 25 MPs but muzzled the voices of crores of people these MPs represent."
A citizen might well ask about the government's contention that opposition "obstructionism" is blocking development oriented legislation like GST? Is the opposition anti-development as the BJP would have you believe? Weren't the suspensions inevitable? As Finance Minister Jaitley asked, is it an "obstructionist attitude" that makes Congress adopt a "negative role"? Frankly, this is nothing but tired rhetoric of a government that is failing on many fronts. If level of "obstructionism" is the yardstick for measuring pro-development credentials of opposition parties, then the BJP's stance on GST, while it was in the opposition, could be categorised as anarchic. Even so, the BJP did not face anything close to what Congress faced today. The Speaker did not just suspend 25 MPs but muzzled the voices of crores of people these MPs represent.
Mind you, parliament functioned relatively well before this session. Since Mr. Modi came to power, parliament passed key pieces of legislation. These included bills related to insurance, undisclosed foreign income and assets, coal mines, apprentices, judicial appointments, regional rural banks etc. That means the government and the opposition, including the Congress, can work together. However, there are times when this partnership comes across obstacles that, frankly, only the government can remove.
"Mr. Modi's deafening silence was one of contempt, not just for the opposition but for our parliamentary democracy."
Mr. Modi's big win in 2014 did not negate the rights of the minority, in this case the opposition parties led by the Congress. Mr. Modi's ill-fated attempt to revoke the land act of 2013 not only cost him precious political capital, it also earned him much distrust in opposition ranks. The BJP's decision to brazen out a non-stop, headline grabbing scandal involving its top leaders turned this distrust into fury. Mr. Modi's deafening silence was one of contempt, not just for the opposition but for our parliamentary democracy. The decision to suspend Congress MPs is a warning to us all. It appears this government will go to any extent to stifle demands for accountability. Perhaps BJP has learnt the wrong lessons from Gujarat, where Mr. Modi retained his cabinet a minister convicted in a corruption scandal. There was also the infamous occasion when the assembly Speaker suspended the entire opposition! A cookie cutter approach to applying lessons of Gujarat to India will fail. The suspension of MPs will consolidate opposition to the government. Mr. Modi will face increased pressure to choose between truly good governance and Mrs. Swaraj and other tainted BJP leaders. I hope he chooses wisely. The country is watching.
The author is a National Media Panellist of the Indian National Congress. Views expressed are personal.