After displaying considerable political aggression, even arrogance, on the land ordinance – promulgated three times so far – the BJP-led government appears to have adopted a much softer approac saying it will take into account the views of all the Chief Ministers who attended the Niti Aayog meeting on Wednesday to discuss the contentious legislation on which so much parliamentary time and energy has already been expended.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, present at the Niti Aayog meeting, both invoked the newly discovered “spirit of federalism” in regard to the contentious land bill. The PM and FM presented a picture of utter reasonableness because political circumstances have changed quite dramatically over the past month, what with the Modi-led government surrounded by multiple scandals involving top BJP leaders at the Centre and states. Given the changing national political situation and the upcoming Bihar election, the calculation seems to be that the land bill, with the immense negativity it has generated, is best put in abeyance for now.
Congress Chief Ministers boycotted the Niti Aayog meeting, reflecting the new-found aggression of a party which never imagined it could rise from the ashes of 44 Lok Sabha seats and a confused leadership to boot. But then the Congress now seems full of new energy, mostly derived from serious political errors committed by the BJP. The Congress is preparing for a big showdown in the forthcoming monsoon session of parliament. The Samajwadi Party and Trinamool Congress also absented themselves from Wednesday’s meeting. The challenge for Modi will be to manage a working relationship with the regional parties who, in the recent past, have had a very unpleasant experience with BJP chief Amit Shah. Bihar CM Nitish Kumar attended the meeting but told the government this was not the right time to bring the land bill. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal said the 2013 land bill which was endorsed by all political parties must be given a chance. So the PM and FM have read the overall mood around the contentious issue, and if the bill does not pass in the monsoon session, it may not be repromulgated again. Psychologically, the BJP’s 282 seats in the Lok Sabha have started appearing less than adequate.
Gone too is all defiant talk of a joint session of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha to ram the bill through. Arun Jaitley said, “We will wait for the joint select committee on the land bill to present its report before Parliament”. The committee is still examining various aspects of the land bill and has invited suggestions from a wide array of stakeholders. Sangh Parivar affiliates like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Bhartiya Kisan Sangh have vehemently opposed the land ordinance in their submissions. They have written to the Committee asking for both the consent clause and the social impact assessment to be restored.
In the face of such vigorous opposition from within, both the PM and FM have no option but to invoke, at this late stage , the sprit of “cooperative federalism” if only to wriggle out of the embarrassing situation they find themselves in.
The body language of both leaders at the Niti Aayog suggests they aren’t very hopeful of the monsoon session of Parliament yielding much fruit. Indeed, the political parties may have already entered a phase of bitter and prolonged contestation linked to the Lalit Modi and Vyapam scandals. The BJP has brazened it out so far. But it is doubtful whether the government, particularly the PM, can avoid answering some leading questions in Parliament. The time for “maun asana” – the yogic repose of silence that the Opposition accuses him of being in – may well be over.