When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a dig at the Congress Wednesday saying its Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha wings are pulling in different directions, he touched a few raw nerves in the party.
For, this evokes a debate from the past but is also linked to the present state of the party — and the dissension within.
Modi’s jibe, of course, was in the context of the smooth debate on the motion of thanks on the President’s Address in the Rajya Sabha. His reply was uninterrupted after the Government and the Opposition agreed to extend the duration of the debate in the Upper House from 10 to 15 hours so that members could speak on the farmers’ issue. The Opposition dropped its demand for a separate discussion.
In the Lok Sabha, however, the Congress-led Opposition insisted on a separate discussion on the farm laws but relented Monday. And the Prime Minister had to face interruptions during his reply.
Party leaders said that at one level, this isn’t new. Late former President Pranab Mukherjee admits to this in his memoirs. That between 1999 and 2004, the Congress (then in opposition) was responsible for disruptions in Lok Sabha on several occasions. This, he said, resulted in differences between members of the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha.
“As a member of the Upper House, I, along with Dr Manmohan Singh, opposed the tendency of the party’s leadership to support disruptions in the Lower House. I made it amply clear that this practice of disruptions may have become the norm in the Lok Sabha, but it would not be implemented under my leadership in the Rajya Sabha. Dr Singh agreed with me. I further reiterated to the party leadership that it would be better off finding a replacement for me in case it wished to carry forward such tactics. Owing to my stand, we were faced with the happy situation where it was business as usual in the Rajya Sabha, even as the Lower House remained disturbed,” he said.
But the internal dynamics of the Congress was quite different then.
A section of Congress Lok Sabha MPs believe the Rajya Sabha leadership should not have agreed to the debate. They say Rahul Gandhi had taken a clear view that the Opposition should continue to protest if the government doesn’t accept the demand for a separate debate on farm issues.
There is another sub-text: the internal politics in the Congres. What is unsaid is that it was Ghulam Nabi Azad and Congress deputy leader Anand Sharma who were calling the shots in the Upper House. Both of them are signatories to the letter a group of 23 leaders had written to Sonia Gandhi.
Significantly, the Congress president had set up two groups – one for each House – in August. These groups, she said, would meet daily during the session and could also meet inter-session to discuss Parliament issues. “Joint meetings can be convened as and when needed,” she had said but sources said there has hardly been any.
Interestingly, the last day of the Monsoon Session of Parliament in September had seen differences emerge within the Congress’s Lok Sabha leadership on whether to stay away during the Speaker’s valedictory address. The Congress and the other Opposition parties had boycotted Rajya Sabha over suspension of eight Opposition MPs who were accused of created a ruckus during passage of the farm bills.
In Lok Sabha, many members argued the party should follow suit although the party’s leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury argued that they should not stay away from the valedictory function. Chowdhury’s argument was that Congress’s opposition was to the Government but not to Parliament as an institution and that party MPs should be present during the national song so that a wrong message is not conveyed. But with the majority favouring a complete boycott, he had to relent.
“In Lok Sabha, because they are elected members…they are accountable to the people in a more direct sense. So they reflect the kind of feedback which is available to them from the ground,” said a senior Congress Lok Sabha MP. “On the farmers’ issue, sentiments were running so high that it was felt we should take a far more aggressive position than what was taken in the Rajya Sabha.”
Some Congress Lok Sabha MPs claimed the party’s leadership in Rajya Sabha agreed to the debate to facilitate a “grand farewell” for Azad. When contacted, one of the non-Congress Opposition leaders in Rajya Sabha echoed this.
“Many Opposition parties, including the Left and the DMK, strongly opposed. Rajya Sabha had in the past taken strong positions. That was diluted. When the Congress takes such a view…we yielded a bit as we thought it was not right to send out a message that the opposition is divided,” one leader said.“More so, when the NDA has a majority in the Upper House now.”
Unlike in the first term when it could stall Bills prompting late Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to once ask how an “unelected” House could overrule the mandate of the “elected” house. For the BJP, the wheel may have come full circle, too.