What a Monsoon Session in Parliament India witnessed this time! Exactly a year ago it was a complete wash out as the heightened ruckus had forced Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan to take an unprecedented action of suspending 25 Congress MPs for five days.
Last year extreme bitterness soured relationship between the Congress and the BJP and the session ended on 13 August with no work done even at the risk of important bills like the GST getting delayed.
A year later, on 12 August, 2016, on the conclusion of the Monsoon Session things look completely opposite. The shrill war cries and placards from the main Opposition party Congress gave way to measured debates and healthy criticism -- a welcome change that epitomises the Indian parliamentary democracy.
This short session of 20 working days will be remembered as one of the most productive sessions and will go down in history, as one of the most contentious GST (Goods and Services Bill, the 122nd Constitutional Amendment Bill), got passed. This Bill literally paved the way for the single biggest and most transformative -- One India One Tax reform. The Bill, which had gone through 13 long years of deliberations and had seen deep divide among major political parties, was ultimately passed with all present and voting in favour of the Bill, with no one voting against it.
More so, the Session ended on a note of broad parliamentary camaraderie that was never seen before, at least in the last few decades -- the Prime Minister chairing an all-party meeting on Kashmir. The opposition leaders had demanded this meeting and it was promptly accepted by the government. The Session saw the passage of 15 bills, introduction of 14 new bills as against the initial plan of six bills and debate on a number of issues of national interests including on self-styled Gau Rakshaks, atrocities against dalits and Kashmir unrest. In fact, the turmoil in Kashmir was discussed four times including an over six-hour debate on Wednesday, something about which Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that he had not seen in his two decade long parliamentary career.
The question is who should get credit for smooth functioning of Parliament, for turning sharply conflicting positions to a broad consensus on critical issues. Besides, the GST and other legislative matters, there were at least two other occasions -- first, Home Minister Rajnath Singh's statement on his Pakistan visit where tough talk on terrorism against the host nation was blacked out; second debate on turmoil in Kashmir -- a broad national consensus was seen in Parliament.
Should PM Modi claim credit? Or is it actually the Opposition, particularly the Congress which made it possible for Parliament to function smoothly? Has Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi mellowed and matured? Or is it the prominent regional parties whose pressure to discuss and debate issues finally helped? To find an answer one has to compare and see what has changed between previous year's Monsoon and Winter sessions and this year's monsoon Session.
It's true that primarily it is the government's responsibility to convene Parliament as per the norm, list business and ensure its smooth functioning. But Parliament is as much of Opposition members as much it is of ruling treasury bench members. Thus the responsibility of smooth functioning is shared. If PM Modi and his government claims credit, the opposition parties too equally has a claim over it. The longer hours of sitting beyond scheduled hours or even otherwise, requires that members from all sides, at least to fill the quorum are present in the House. This can't be possible without cooperation from the Opposition.
PM Modi deserves credit for re-focusing on Parliamentary functioning. A year ago, it almost seemed that he and his floor managers had resigned to the fate that they have to do for remainder of their tenure with a non-functional legislature. This would have also resulted in a situation where the executive would have been under tremendous pressure not allowing the Modi government to any gainful situation in terms of delivery of popular goods and services.
He gave an indication to this effect when he expanded and reshuffled his Council of ministers weeks ahead of the opening of Monsoon session of Parliament. PM Modi sent out a message that he didn't want his ministers to be unnecessarily confrontationist. Thus came a change in the portfolios of Smriti Irani and M Venkaiah Naidu while VK Singh's responsibilities was lightened. The management of parliamentary affairs was given to a more affable and relatively quiet yet efficient Ananth Kumar. SS Ahluwalia a sharp mind on parliamentary norms and known for having friends across the party lines was brought in as his deputy.
In his meetings with ministers, floor managers in Parliament and at close door parliamentary party meetings, Modi emphasised that they all had to exercise restrain while responding to a provocation from Opposition, particularly the Congress. The political battle would be aggressively fought on the streets but Parliament was a forum of debate, discussion and dissension, and had to remain so. The way BJP exercised restraint in responding to Rahul's Arhar Modi barb in Parliament was a case in point.
The Congress had realised that its negative politics of obstruction had isolated it from rest of the opposition parties and even its members were feeling uncomfortable. If Rahul had to be in the reckoning, the party would have to be seen as a responsible Opposition, not turning Parliament into a pandemonium.
Does it mean that Winter Session will be as smooth? That would be hazardous to predict given the fact that by the time next Session is convened, the heat of politically significant Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls in all likelihood will become all pervasive.