It had become boring—the usual Indian tamasha of Parliament being disrupted. However, the small group of Congress MPs kept up their agitation in the Lok Sabha. Raising slogans and holding up placards, they trooped into the well of the house every time it assembled.
The routineness of their agitation appeared to be dimming its effect. The lack of support from other opposition parties also did not help. The Samajwadi Party MPs remained unmoved, and the Trinamool Congress members looked the other way every time the Congress contingent sought backing.
The young agitating MPs, however, were egged on by party chief Sonia Gandhi to carry on with the protests. She refused to listen to Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s appeals to her to order her MPs to occupy their seats. When Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury was suspended for banging his placard on the Speaker's table, Mahajan complained that none of the party leaders had objected to his brash behaviour. “Why should I?” asked Sonia.
The belligerence was again on display as Sonia appeared in a rare street-fighter avatar. Flanked by son Rahul and former prime minister Manmohan Singh, she staged a dharna condemning the suspension of 25 of 44 Congress members of the Lok Sabha.
Sonia has been at her aggressive best. The monsoon session has been the Congress’s big opportunity to corner the government on Lalitgate and the Vyapam scam. The party is doing exactly what the BJP had done to the Manmohan Singh government.
After the Speaker's punitive action was announced, Sonia did not walk out of the house. She discussed with party leaders and other opposition members on what the future strategy should be. She reached out to the Trinamool Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party. And that turned the tide. Other opposition parties started joining forces with the Congress.
Sonia's plan for the monsoon session was clear soon after she rebuked Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who had spoken against disruption of Parliament. Eventually, it was Rahul who pacified Sonia, and told Tharoor that like discussion and debate in Parliament, protest, too, was vital.
“Our stand has been straightforward and clear from day one,” Sonia said at a Congress parliamentary party meeting. “There is a mountain of incontrovertible evidence in public domain for the prime minister to require the resignations of the external affairs minister and the two chief ministers.”
The Congress has stuck to its demand that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje should resign for their alleged involvement in Lalitgate, and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan be ousted for his alleged role in the Vyapam scam. Thus, the Modi government’s plans of passing crucial bills, such as amendments to the Land Act of 2013 and the goods and services tax bill, have been deadlocked.
Said Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha: “[Union Home Minister] Rajnath Singh said on the floor of the house that there was no FIR against their leaders either in Vyapam or in Lalitgate. There was no FIR against [allegedly tainted ministers in UPA II] Pawan Kumar Bansal or Ashwani Kumar. However, they resigned on moral grounds. Now, they [the BJP] are saying there is no FIR against their leaders. It shows their double standards.”
Just as the Congress had toughened its stand, and garnered support of other opposition parties, the government backtracked on its proposed amendments during a meeting of the joint select committee on the land bill. It virtually agreed to return to the UPA’s land bill.
The U-turn, sources said, could be a tactical retreat to get the support of the Congress in passing the GST bill in the Rajya Sabha. The decision was also influenced by the realisation that the BJP had lost the battle of perception in the case of the land bill. Also, some BJP leaders took into cognizance the general unease regarding the bill.
A Congress leader, who is a member of the select committee on the bill, quipped that if you close your eyes and listen to the BJP members on the panel, you might end up assuming they are opposition MPs. Notably, RSS affiliates such as Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, too, had opposed the proposed changes to the bill.
“We have to admit that we could not communicate to the people and the farmers, that the amendments were not anti-farmer,” said a Union minister. “The opposition was successful in convincing the people that we were being anti-farmer.”
Sources say the government is trying to get the Congress back on board in Parliament. It has got in touch with the Congress through the Samajwadi Party, the NCP and the Trinamool Congress. “If they go and meet the Speaker and give the assurance that the house will run smoothly, their suspension can be revoked,” said Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu.
There, in fact, is discontent within the government as well as the BJP over conducting parliamentary business in the absence of the opposition. BJP leader Shatrughan Sinha tweeted in disapproval of the suspension episode: “Good sense must prevail... sooner the better.” BJP MP Hukum Singh said in the Lok Sabha that the opposition members should be persuaded to participate in the house.
The Congress, however, appears to be unrelenting. “Respect for the basic tenets of parliamentary functioning warrants that the Speaker reconsiders her decision to permit dissent,” said Randeep Surjewala, head of the party's media cell.
With its leadership in an aggressive mode, the Congress has launched a no-holds-barred attack on the Speaker. Youth Congress activists protested outside Mahajan’s residence, and the police resorted to lathi-charge and water cannons. Kirit Somaiya of the BJP moved a privilege motion in the Lok Sabha against the Youth Congress activists who protested and burned her in effigy.
The burning question, however, is: Will the monsoon session be a washout? For the moment, the answer seems to be: sad but true, yes.