With two of its allies opposing the Bill, it was not easy for Modi government to manage the numbers, which were stacked against it in the Upper House.
The second innings of the Modi government has got off to a flying start. The government’s Achilles Heel is the Rajya Sabha where it does not have a majority either on its own or with its partners in the NDA, and yet it managed to push through two significant legislations in a span of just seven days. The Bill amending the Right to Information Act and the Bill to criminalise instant triple divorce among the Muslim community were passed in the so-called upper House despite a majority of parties opposing, at least on paper, both these legislations.
The BJP-led government’s success has been due to its deft floor management. It secured numbers from outside either by winning the parties over or convincing some of its friends and rivals to remain neutral through abstentions if they were not comfortable with the legislations for various reasons. The main opposition party, the Congress, on the other hand, gripped by a leadership crisis, failed to take the lead or keep its larger non-NDA parties together. The passage of both these Bills is a reminder to the Congress of the pathetic situation it finds itself in. While the BJP succeeded in winning over the Biju Janata Dal’s support for the Muslim women divorce Bill, the Congress could not even ensure that its allies were in full strength in the Rajya Sabha to oppose it. Key leaders including Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel of the Nationalist Congress Party were absent; in all, 23 Opposition members were missing from the House when the Bill was put to vote. This included representatives from the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Telugu Desam Party, the TMC, the DMK and the PDP. The chiefs of all these parties had slammed the government’s Bill and vowed to oppose it. A more or less similar scene had earlier been enacted with the RTI amendment Bill when suddenly, the number of voters from the Opposition bench had conveniently dropped to provide the NDA with a majority.
It does not necessarily have to wait for a majority of its own in the House to get its pet legislation passed; if it can convince or manage sections of the Opposition, it can succeed.
The RTI amendment Bill was the first major success of this government in the Rajya Sabha. The Congress, which had flag-shipped the RTI Act during its tenure and paraded it as among its major achievements, looked on helplessly as the government managed the numbers to pass amendments to it. Dire warnings from the Congress camp — that the amendments, if adopted, would mark the end of the right to information, seemed to have fallen on deaf ears of other opposition parties. Either they were not convinced or they found no merit in being on the Congress’s side.
On the triple divorce issue, the government has been third time lucky; two previous attempts to get the Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha had failed. But the success did not come without planning. The government tenaciously worked on the concerns of the opposition parties, addressing those that it could and seeking to convince those that were willing to listen. It separated them from the ones who were obdurate, thus isolating the latter. It is for the parties whose leaders had vehemently opposed the Bill to explain why they did not, if they felt so strongly, ensure that their members were present to vote against the Bill.
It was not easy for the BJP to manage the numbers, which were stacked against it in the Upper House. Besides, two of its allies — the Janata Dal (United) and the AIADMK — were opposed to the Bill. These parties made it clear that they could not be seen voting in favour of the proposed legislation, for their own political reasons. At the same time, it would have been improper for them, as partners of the NDA, to vote against a Bill sponsored by the NDA regime. The middle course of being absent or abstaining, was thus, agreed upon. It served the government well since such absence reduced the strength of the House during voting and brought the halfway mark closer to achievement for the ruling dispensation. But, just to be doubly sure, the government reached out to the BJD and the non-NDA regional parties. The former voted in Bill’s favour while some others from the latter remained missing from the House.
What are the larger implications of the government’s recent success in the Rajya Sabha? The first is that it does not necessarily have to wait for a majority of its own in the House to get its pet legislation passed; if it can convince or manage sections of the Opposition, it can succeed. The second is that Congress will have to redraw its strategy as it has become evident that it cannot depend on its so-called friends to stand by it when it comes to the crunch. The third is that a rudderless Congress cannot hope for help from the outside; it needs to fix its internal problems beforehand. And these problems are many. Congress leaders from across the country are deserting the party, with the most recent being the high-profile Sanjay Sinh of the former Amethi royal family. Sinh, seen as a Nehru-Gandhi loyalist, claimed that the Congress had become directionless and purposeless.
It’s easy for the Congress to dismiss his remarks as that of a turncoat, but even loyal Congress leaders have been expressing fear that the party was sliding downward in the absence of leadership. Rahul Gandhi resigned weeks ago as party president, but there is no sign of a replacement. Senior party men such as Shashi Tharoor, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Captain Amarinder Singh have publicly expressed their disappointment and concern. With Rahul Gandhi absent in action and Sonia Gandhi filling in reluctantly, it’s not surprising that the Congress’s floor strategy was a big mess in the Rajya Sabha.
The two recent major setbacks for the Congress in the Rajya Sabha should serve as a wake-up call to the party. It ought to at least now realise that it cannot continue to be stuck in the past, but must grasp the aspirations of the present set of voters. It got away with the Shah Bano disaster, but that was in 1986; it’s 2019 now. Those days, with a brute majority of over 400 members in the Lok Sabha, it could dictate terms to even its rivals. Today, down to less than 55, it has to struggle to make its own listen.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.