It was like a classroom, said an MP coming out of the BJP’s parliamentary party meeting on July 23, the second day of the monsoon session of Parliament. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke first and party president Amit Shah next.
“You all have been provided the books and the material. Study them carefully, and prepare your answers to any questions, charges, allegations. Be assertive,” Modi told the leaders, pointing to a booklet titled Vyapam: Myths.
Shah referred to the other booklet in the kit: Reality and Saga of Scams in Congress-ruled States, a compendium on corruption involving the Congress. Expose their chief ministers and leaders. Make them run for cover, he told them.
The BJP’s strategy was clear. Turn the tables on the Congress, which was pressing for the resignation of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and chief ministers Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan and Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, too, told her MPs to settle for nothing short of resignation of the three ministers. She pulled up MP Shashi Tharoor for going public with his views on Parliament disruptions. “You always do this, it has become a habit with you,” she told Tharoor in the presence of other Congress Mps.
The scene inside both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha was a throwback to when scams rocked the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. Only the roles had been reversed, with the Congress playing the raucous, assertive and obstructive role, and the BJP crying foul.
During the monsoon session of 2012, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, then the leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, was categoric: We will obstruct Parliament from working till the prime minister resigns on account of the Coalgate scam. He recalled that two years earlier, it was because of the pressure put by the BJP in Parliament that then telecom minister A. Raja resigned. He also emphasised that they were not interested in a debate.
On July 23, Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia quoted Jaitley, though not verbatim, the spirit was the same. “Disruption is a completely valid form of protest in Parliament. People want answers from the government. There is neither any action nor any clarification,” he said in response to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu’s claims that the Congress was running away from discussions. “We have no problem in discussing anything,” he said.
Sushma’s dream of becoming the prime minister may or may not fructify. But she stood in Manmohan Singh’s shoes as most of the opposition, led by the Congress, wanted her out of the cabinet. It is another matter that Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav pointed out that she is a woman, and women are forgiven a hundred murders—sau khoon maaf.
The BJP’s decision to defend the three ministers at any cost was taken a week before the Parliament session began. Soon after, Sushma tweeted that a Congress leader had tried to put pressure on her to grant a diplomatic passport to former minister of state for coal Santosh Bagrodia, an accused in the coal scam, and that she would reveal his name in Parliament. But the opposition did not take the bait.
The BJP plans to deal with the Sushma issue by making the opposition agree to a debate in Parliament. As for Raje and Chouhan, it would try to skirt the issue. “The established convention is that we don’t discuss the state governments and the chief ministers except in the case of a natural disaster, calamity, terrorism and those kind of subjects,” said Communication and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. “Otherwise, there will be no end to taking on chief ministers in Parliament.” That said, the BJP took on the Congress and ensured that the fight in Parliament spilt over to the states.
Recently, Sushma briefed ministers who have been party spokespersons in the past, and have personal equations with mediapersons. The homework was done by a committee headed by senior journalist and BJP member M.J. Akbar. It served to energise the party and the spokespersons were happy to be back on the dais.
“It is nice to be back with you all in familiar surroundings. I do miss this,” said Prasad, who was for long the BJP’s national spokesperson. He then launched a full-scale attack on Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, and Akbar helped him with the word “applegate”, considering that Singh is accused of corruption after his income, allegedly from his apple orchards, grew “14-fold” in three years.
Earlier, Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had accused Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat and his secretary of taking money to influence the liquor policy. “They want the resignation of Vasundhara and Shivraj Singh, we want those of Rawat, Virbhadra, [Kerala chief minister] Oommen Chandy and the Karnataka chief minister [Siddaramaiah],” said Prasad.
With the BJP launching a counterattack, the opposition brought about a change in its stance. And articulating this change, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad, said it was not a fight against individuals or between the Congress and the BJP. He said it was a fight over principles. “I respect all three—the Central minister and the two chief ministers. They are good leaders at a personal level. It is not a fight against persons. It is a fight of principles,” said Azad.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi played an important role in coordinating the Congress agitation in Parliament. On July 23, before he left on a tour of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, Rahul had a meeting with the opposition leaders from the lower house. He is learnt to have deputed Scindia and Rajiv Satav to reach out to other opposition parties.
Meanwhile, the BJP is trying to find a way to see crucial bills—on land acquisition and goods and services tax—through.
WITH SONI MISHRA