The BJP-led NDA is aping the policies of its predecessor in many respects, leaving the voters to wonder what was the magic mantra that the party promised during the election campaign.
By Anita Katyal in New Delhi
After its stunning victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was widely expected that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government would unveil its future agenda during its first Parliament session. Given its brute majority in the Lok Sabha, the ruling alliance has the luxury of pushing ahead with fresh ideas to signal its much-promised break from the past. But as the ongoing budget session draws to a close, it is evident that the three-month-old NDA government is yet to usher in any radical changes as far as its legislative agenda is concerned.
Opting for continuity in governance, the ruling alliance has instead resurrected the bills, which were drawn up by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, but could not be approved by parliament during its tenure. “The NDA government has obviously not done its homework….it has not been able to bring any new bills. It is continuing with the agenda set by the Congress,” remarks former Congress minister Rajeev Shukla.
In fact, shortly after taking charge, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked his office and the parliamentary affairs ministry, headed by M Venkaiah Naidu, to scrutinize all the bills which were not cleared by the UPA government and to list out those which could be taken up during the budget session on a priority basis.
Since it took charge in end-May, one explanation being offered by the NDA government is that it had little time to prepare its own legislation for the budget session. But having promised to end the policy paralysis witnessed during the previous regime, the Modi government has been under pressure to deliver on its promise of speeding up the decision-making process. It could hardly afford to go through its first parliament session without having anything to show by way of its legislative achievements.
Moreover, the BJP felt its move to complete the UPA’s unfinished agenda would make it easier for the ruling alliance to enlist the support of the Congress party, which would find it difficult to oppose the bills its government had introduced.
The NDA government has the numbers to push through any legislation in the Lok Sabha but it is compelled to do business with the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, where it is in a minority. Consequently, the ruling alliance has dug up the UPA government’s Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to raise the cap of foreign investment in the insurance sector from the current 26 per cent to 49 per cent.
Similarly, the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, seeking to do away with the present system of judges appointing judges and giving a greater say to the executive in this exercise, has also been dredged up. It was passed in the Rajya Sabha last year but failed to clear the Lok Sabha hurdle.
The Securities Laws (Amendment) Bill, approved by the Lok Sabha on August 6, is also the UPA government’s brainchild. This legislation empowers SEBI investigators to crack down on fraudulent investment sche-mes like the recent Saradha case.
The Narendra Modi-led government is also moving ahead to amend the archaic labor laws. The proposed legislation allowing employers to hire more workers without complying with the labor laws, was initiated during the UPA-I tenure in 2005, but had to be withdrawn following opposition from the Left parties, which were lending crucial outside support to the government. A fresh bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2011 but it failed to make any headway.
In fact, much of the groundwork for the Juvenile Justice Act, cleared by the union cabinet on August 6, was undertaken by woman and child development minister Maneka Gandhi’s predecessor Krishna Tirath.
“The fact that the substantial part of the legislative agenda of the NDA government is a continuation of the bills proposed by the UPA government is a both a validation of the previous regime’s polices but it also demonstrates a lack of any fresh thinking on part of the BJP,” says former law minister Ashwani Kumar.
Ironically, the ruling alliance is now seeking passage of the bills, which were consistently blocked by the Bharatiya Janata Party when it was in the opposition during the UPA tenure. “This clearly betrays the doublespeak of the BJP, whose stand depends on whether it is in the government or in the opposition,” Ashwani Kumar adds.
Admitting that the ruling alliance is taking forward the previous government’s pending bills, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley maintains the legislation has been suitably tweaked and amended. The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, according to him, has been altered significantly. “It’s a brand new bill,”
While Jaitley is predictably defending his government, the new finance minister’s maiden budget has also been labeled by the Congress as a UPA budget. Taking a dig at his successor, former Finance Minister P Chidambaram was quick to point out that the BJP budget carried the “imprint of the UPA government’s policies”. “Welcome to the real world…. BJP sought a mandate for a Congress-mukt Bharat. My friend Arun Jaitley would have realized that it is not possible to have even a Congress-mukt budget,” remarked Chidambaram.
With the Congress gloating that the NDA government was continuing with its policies, BJP’s parliamentary managers were very confident that its legislative agenda would have a smooth run in parliament. The Securities Laws (Amen-dment) Bill was cleared by Parliament without any murmurs from the main opposition party. However, the BJP was taken aback when the Congress joined hands with other opposition parties in the Rajya Sabha to stall the introduction of the crucial Insurance Laws (Amendments) Bill.
Taking advantage of its numerical strength in the upper house, the Congress has succeeded in unsettling the BJP leaders. The Congress-led opposition demanded that the legislation be referred to a parliamentary panel for a detailed scrutiny, as the ruling alliance has introduced a number of substantive amendments in the original bill tabled by the UPA government way back in 2008.
While the Left parties and the Trinamool Congress are ideologically opposed to the insurance bill, the Congress has its own scores to settle with the BJP. After all, it was the BJP which stalled the same bill for six years when the UPA was in power.
After the UPA government introduced the bill in the Rajya Sabha, it was referred to the parliamentary standing committee on finance, headed by former finance minister and BJP leader Yashwant Sinha. The panel, which submitted its report in 2011, rejected the UPA’s move to raise FDI in the insurance sector to 49 per cent. Chidambaram made several attempts to address the BJP’s apprehensions and even offered to amend the bill to make it more acceptable, but to little avail.
The wheel has now come full circle. After blocking the bill for all these years, the BJP is now working overtime to persuade the opposition to approve the same legislation at the earliest. However, its leaders are hard pressed to explain their past opposition to the bill. “We were never really opposed to raising the FDI limit to 49 per cent…. since the standing committee had made some observations, certain doubts had arisen,” explains Arun Jaitley.
BJP leaders privately maintain the bill was stalled because of the poor interpersonal relations between Yashwant Sinha and Chidambaram. Others recall that relations between the Congress and the BJP had deteriorated to such an extent that the overwhelming mood in the saffron party then was to veto every major bill moved by the UPA government. The Congress was helpless, as it needed BJP’s support to push through its legislative agenda in the Rajya Sabha, where it was in a minority.
Having been at the receiving end for the past decade, the Congress has now got an opportunity to corner the BJP. While maintaining it is not opposed to the bill, the Congress insists it should be referred to a parliamentary select committee, as the NDA government has changed the definition of FDI to include investments by foreign investment institutions (FIIs), which could facilitate the entry of hot money.
“Why is the government in such a tearing hurry? They kept us waiting for six years and now they can’t even wait for a few months,” asks Ghulam Nabi Azad, Congress leader and leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
The Congress gameplan is to buy time and delay the passage of the bill. It wants the BJP to sweat it out, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen that the NDA government’s first major reform bill should get the parliamentary approval before his September visit to the US. Besides wanting to send out an unequivocal message that it is serious about pushing economic reforms, the NDA government also needs to soften the blow because its tough stand on food subsidies at the recent WTO meeting has come in for public disapproval by Washington.
Keen to score a victory, a desperate BJP has attempted to divide the opposition and has even threatened to call a joint session of parliament to secure the passage of the bill. Promulgation of an ordinance is also being mentioned.
A plaintive Venkaiah Naidu was heard telling the opposition recently: “We opposed the bill when you brought it. We brought the bill and you have opposed it. Now let’s move forward.” But the Congress is unwilling to cooperate. After being decimated in the recent Lok Sabha polls, the Congress has got a chance to prove it is still relevant. It is unlikely to fitter away this opportunity, which has landed in its lap very easily.