The Congress party’s tactical manoeuvres in Parliament in recent times have come in for criticism from many quarters, including some of the prominent business lobbies which ran an online signature campaign urging political parties to resume parliamentary work. Their aim was largely to pressure the Congress into lifting its boycott of House proceedings.
Of course, these very industry associations never felt the same way when the opposition had disrupted session after session in 2011-12 and later in 2013, when Arun Jaitley publicly declared that while the BJP in principle supported key economic legislations—such as the GST—it would not cooperate with the UPA which had ceased to enjoy “political legitimacy.” It is well known that BJP’s maximalist position then came at the behest of Narendra Modi, just as the Congress’s maximalist position now is coming at the behest of Rahul Gandhi.
Many senior Congress leaders don’t feel comfortable with Rahul Gandhi’s tactics, which they privately describe as less than nuanced. They are used to certain established patterns of political and parliamentary engagement which necessarily involves a cozy compromise between the two largest parties. Big business also plays a critical role in the making of this compromise.
The role of India Inc
You may ask why these businesses did not intervene when the BJP was wantonly blocking economic legislation during the UPA-2 regime. Well, at some level they were very unhappy with the welfarist turn the UPA was taking with the proposed enactment of the right to food, land acquisition etc. Industry also seemed upset that the UPA was playing favourites in the allocation of resources such as spectrum, coal etc. So it did not shed tears over the UPA not being able to conduct business in Parliament. Big business clearly wanted a change of regime. But they are a bit disappointed with Modi today. Not only is there no pro-industry land law but the welfare schemes are not going away either.
Purely at a tactical level, Rahul Gandhi’s maximalist approach over the last two Parliament sessions seems to have upset industry because the Congress has won a major victory on the land bill. Industry was backing Modi to the hilt on the issue, forcing the NDA to re-promulgate the land ordinance again and again.
It was Rahul Gandhi who took the extreme position that the 2013 land legislation was totally non-negotiable. Many among the old guard of the Congress, prone to striking easy compromises with the BJP and industry, would possibly have been open to doing a deal on the land question. That is the way the “old Congress” works. But Rahul and the younger leaders around him decided not to budge.
Young Turks and old guard
Interestingly, this is a new, not so subtle, divide which has emerged within the Congress party. The old guard, midway through the monsoon session, wanted to come back to the house for a debate and discussion. But the younger Congress leaders were steadfast on boycotting until Modi took some action on either Lalitgate or Vyapam. Sonia Gandhi, who normally goes by the advice of the old guard—Ahmed Patel, Ghulam Nabi Azad etc—chose to pitch her lot with the younger leadership. That explains her belligerence in the Lok Sabha and outside Parliament.
Her behaviour prompted Arun Jaitley to remark that this was the first time in recent Parliament history that a supreme leader had entered the well of the house. Without naming Sonia, Jaitley was suggesting there had been a massive breach of Parliamentary decorum. Jaitley was reminded by Congressmen that the PM’s absence from Parliament was also unprecedented. He did not even show up when Sushma Swaraj made her hyper emotional speech on the penultimate day of the Lok Sabha.
The younger Congressmen led by Rahul Gandhi were probably not so keen to participate in a discussion on the penultimate day. Their preference would have been to go for a full boycott rather than the tokenism of the Congress having agreed to a discussion for just one day. The senior Congress leaders may have prevailed over Sonia Gandhi to nominally signal that Congress was not running away from a discussion. Indeed, it was a big surprise when Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan agreed to an adjournment motion for a debate on the penultimate day after rejecting it officially before. It seems there was a last minute deal between the two sides. The Speaker, given her reputation, was merely “following instructions”. In retrospect, the Congress hardly gained anything by agreeing to a discussion for just one day. It merely led to more acrimony, with personal attacks coming from both sides.
In any case, it is clear that the one-day discussion notwithstanding, Rahul Gandhi is not softening his position. In short, there is a very interesting play happening between the Congress old guard and the party vice president. Of late, the scales have clearly been tilting in his favour in terms of the tactical preference shown by the Congress in Parliament. This will have implications for the relationship between the ruling formation and the main opposition, at least for as long as the Congress enjoys its Rajya Sabha dominance.
The Congress, with just 44 Lok Sabha seats, has chosen to give the BJP a taste of its own medicine. From the Congress party’s standpoint, this strategy seems to have worked well. The party was in a comatose state after the BJP came to power in May 2014. The Congress leadership never dreamt that Modi would make so many critical mistakes—the land bill for one—within a year of coming to office. To paraphrase Arun Sourie, who in 2013 said Manmohan Singh was the BJP’s best ally, the Congress needs to thank Narendra Modi for helping it come out of its coma so quickly.