In his address to Parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the opposition benches to follow the advice of the President and allow the smooth functioning of Parliament. The call comes amidst much acrimony on the floor of the House, where members of the ruling BJP and the opposition parties, led by the Congress and Left parties, have come to verbal blows on a host of hot-button issues. Saying that the nation was anxious at repeated logjam witnessed in Parliament, Modi invoked former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had disapproved of house disruptions. It was a jibe clearly aimed at the Congress. Appealing to the entire opposition to extending their support for the passage of important legislations like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill, Modi said that the laws emanating out of these bills would go a long way in improving the state of affairs in this country. The Prime Minister claimed that when Parliament was disrupted MPs from the opposition benches suffered the most as they could not discuss issues of public interest. Suffice to say, the Prime Minister is on point. This column has often bemoaned the lack of a sustained discussion on bills of serious importance such as the GST. To paraphrase Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, the Congress and its policies were a liability in the country when in power, and its policies remain a liability today. There is some grain of truth to this assessment. It is particularly ironic that the Congress and the Left parties are claiming the moral high ground when it comes to questions of caste discrimination in institutes of higher education, the use of sedition law, economic mismanagement and corruption, given their recent track record of policy implementation. It goes without the saying that the Goods and Services Tax Bill if enacted into law, is a good policy move. A simple tax regime would require subsuming all state and central taxes under GST. An ambitious overhaul of India’s labyrinth of indirect taxes, which is what the GST seeks to achieve, would give business enterprises across the country a boost while also encouraging transparency.
There are modalities in the GST which need to be sorted out and they cannot be sorted out if the Congress and its compatriots in the Left stick to their cynical brand of debate. Such tactics are not only hurting parliamentary democracy but it is also putting a much-needed policy move in limbo. Instead of discussing ways to repeal the sedition law, enact much-needed police reforms and enhance the autonomy of public universities which would have prevented a JNU-like situation from happening in the first place, the Congress and the Left parties have sought to climb on the high horse of freedom of speech and expression. The less said about their record in defence of freedom of speech and expression, the better. Yes, we must protect and enhance the scope of such freedoms in this country, but do it through exerting legislative pressure on the government like proposing bills and initiating worthwhile discussions, and not walk-outs. However, it would be completely unfair to blame the Congress and the Left for all the ills in Parliament. For example, on the GST bill, the Congress is not completely wrong in wanting certain amendments. But more than specific bills, Prime Minister Modi failed to address the JNU row and Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and the partisan role played by his party members in triggering such incidents. Moreover, he said nothing of his government’s Pakistan policy and the amnesty scheme proposed for those with black money in the country. Suffice to say, the Prime Minister could have found a way to defuse the tension on these hot-button issues. That is what statesmen do. But like his predecessor, he chose to say nothing at all. His ministers have not helped matters by making pointless and divisive assertions on nationalism, which were bereft of fact and nuance. In the interim period, the BJP also launched the ‘Jan Swabhimaan Abhiyan’ aimed at awakening a “sense of pride” in nationalism. Party members have used this platform to build up public opinion against the alleged “anti-national” activities in JNU and instill a very narrow vision of nationalism. Slogans like “gaddaron ko phansi [hang the traitors]” were raised against the arrested JNU students, even though the courts have not yet adjudicated on the matter. The party’s attempt to whip up such divisive public sentiment against these students has left many concerned. Despite the potential electoral benefits for the party, the ruling establishment at the Centre must distance itself from such deliberate attempts at polarisation. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has done little allay these fears.