Getting Their Act Together

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The Left and the BJP have decided not to waste time targeting each other, but to unite and corner the government, writes Seema Mustafa

Opposites attract The Left has always opposed the Indo-US Nuclear deal. Now it has the BJP’s support against the Liability Bill
PHOTOS: AP

THE BUDGET session of Parliament has seen the resurgence of a united Opposition after a long time. It has found a voice in its support to the Women’s Reservation Bill where perhaps the most telling image was the bear hug between BJP leader of the opposition Sushma Swaraj and CPM politburo member Brinda Karat. It also found expression in its opposition to the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, where the government was not able to introduce the legislation on the scheduled date in what was the first sign of trouble.

Congress Party floor managers have had their work cut out with government ministers and senior party leaders meeting over and over again — first to ensure the smooth passage of the Women’s Bill through Parliament, and then to give teeth to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s commitment to the US that the Bill giving all rights to the suppliers would be passed before his visit to Washington. National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon was fielded by the Prime Minister to speak to Opposition leaders, and Congress ministers contacted individual party leaders, but the interventions seemed to strengthen rather than weaken the Opposition — which decided to speak in one voice against the Bill.

The story began before Parliament convened for the Budget session. The Left and the BJP decided, for once, that they would not waste time targeting each other, but unite to corner the government on issues. It was also decided to take the lead in bringing other regional parties together as well on issues of critical importance. The first evidence of this was the Women’s Reservation Bill, where both used their good offices with the regional parties to bring them together on the Bill. The BJP managed the Janata Dal(U) and when the differences between party president Sharad Yadav and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar seemed irreconcilable, moved in to ensure that both agreed to disagree on this one issue. Interestingly, even when differences cropped up within the BJP on the Bill after it was passed in the Rajya Sabha, the Left did not indulge in the usual BJP-bashing, leaving it to the party to work out complications.

The arrogance of numbers has hurt the Congress badly

Coordination between the Left and the Right has worked for those regional parties that are more or less united on the issue of price rise, and now on the Nuclear Liability Bill. The Bahujan Samaj Party has always been an uncertain commodity, but the Left used its channels to convince Mulayam Singh Yadav to oppose the Bill — as did the BJP with the Janata Dal(U). Floor coordination between the parties, sources said, had been regular and intense to ensure that differences within did not impact the larger strategy they had decided to follow in Parliament. The success of this so far has encouraged their MPs, who do not hesitate to point out that the government will now be in “major trouble” on the Finance Bill.

The Congress, on the other hand, has been having a rough time with the arrogance of numbers proving to be a major handicap. The party did not expect the opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha to reach the crescendo it did, and the International Women’s Day deadline passing amid chaos and confusion. Latent opposition to the Women’s Bill within the Congress also prevented the floor managers from effecting a firm strategy, and it needed Congress President Sonia Gandhi to crack the whip before the necessary steps were taken.

Manmohan Singh has made it very clear to the party that the Nuclear Liability Bill has to be passed before Parliament goes into recess. Sources said Congress floor managers again failed to take this seriously and did little to ensure that those supporting the Bill were present in sufficiently large numbers when it was to be tabled in the House. The damage control over the past week was directed at the Women’s Bill, with little time given to managing the opposition to the Nuclear Bill. The result was that the Congress had no idea of its support base in the Lok Sabha when the Bill was first scheduled to be introduced, and once again the government had to suffer the embarrassment of not being able to even table the Bill. It could give no reasons for this.

It soon became clear that the Congress had once again been unable to muster sufficient support for the Bill its Prime Minister is totally committed to. The Trinamool Congress, an ally, made it clear that its support could not be taken for granted on the Bill has evoked a sharp reaction from civil society for capping the compensation at a measly Rs 500 crore in case of a nuclear accident, and letting the suppliers — in this case US multinationals like GE and Westinghouse — off the hook by making the operator (India) liable to pay compensation. After its attack on the Congress at Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati’s rally in Lucknow, the BSP is also not on the same side of the fence as the ruling party at the Centre.

THE NUCLEAR Liability Bill, opposition leaders made clear, was going to be a test of strength in the run-up to the Finance Bill where the government is going to face a slew of cut motions and amendments. The Finance Bill, of course, is tricky as the government falls if any of the amendments proposed by the Opposition are carried through. The fact that several parties have come together on the Nuclear Liability Bill is a “sign of encouragement”, leading Opposition party managers to intensify the cooperation and ensure that it is not diluted when the Finance Bill is discussed and voted on after the recess.

This is the one issue that has led the government to postpone the discussion on the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha and has party leaders scrambling to break opposition unity on the Nuclear Liability Bill. No government can be happy about the “touch-and-go” picture that is emerging days before the Finance Bill is voted on in the Lok Sabha — the pressure is on to persuade the regional satraps to support the government, even if it is for a price. MPs have no hesitation in pointing towards the plethora of cases against some of the leaders, like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mayawati, and speak in hushed tones of “backroom deals”, but so far these do not seem to have worked on any of the targeted leaders.

We are taking it step by step, a senior BJP leader said, pointing out that “we have succeeded in keeping the government on its toes, worried and harassed, and this is what Opposition is all about”.

seemamustafa@gmail.com

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