Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has asked the Opposition to allow Parliament to function in the Budget Session that began on Monday, but the BJP is working to its own plan. On Day 2 of the session, today, it wants Question Hour suspended for a discussion on the Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha. A demand that puts it on collision course with the government, which would like to discuss the Bill only later in the session. Will there be another Lokpal logjam?
The Opposition had stalled much of the Winter Session three months ago on the Lokpal Bill issue. The anti-graft Bill was finally passed by the Lok Sabha in an extended Winter Session last December, but the one day allotted for discussion and voting in the Rajya Sabha was not enough and the government threw up its hands at the midnight hour on December 29, saying there were too many amendments for it to be passed in that session. The Opposition cried foul and has carried over its angst to the Budget Session.
The BJP's Arun Jaitley, who is the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, gave an early indication of what to expect from an aggressive Opposition when he told NDTV on Sunday, "The last session ended on a terrible note. When the government, in order to avoid a vote in the Rajya Sabha on the amendments to the Lokpal Bill, disturbed the session and had it adjourned. Logically, since they wanted time to consider those amendments. I'm sure they've had more than sufficient time. Logically, therefore, the session must take off from where it ended last time. We want the Lokpal Bill to be taken up first."
The government has said it is committed to passing the Bill this time and has promised to list it for discussion in the second half of the Budget Session. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal said, "All the amendment notices from the last session have lapsed. New notices will have to be given and they have started coming in. The government will then have to review and analyze these. The government is hoping to produce a comprehensive Lokpal bill that will prove a barrier to corruption."
The BJP says it is ready with its fresh notices for amendment and it is not ready to push the discussion to another day. Or, at the very least, it wants an action plan on the Lokpal Bill spelt out by the government before other business can begin in this session.
For the government, the priority right now is the vote on account and Parliament's Business Advisory Committee has also listed an early discussion on Centre-State relations in view of the protests from many regional parties that rule states, which say that the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) is against the very tenets of federalism.
That discussion would be key to the Congress-led UPA government's political plans as well. For the Lokpal Bill, it needs ally Trinamool Congress and parties like the Samajwadi Party and the BSP firmly by its side. It hopes to that by taking up the NCTC issue; one of the main opponents to the NCTC is the Trinamool Congress. Mamata Banerjee has assured the government that she will not rock the boat, but Opposition leaders have hinted that they will reach out to her and other UPA allies on the issue of federalism. As an ally Ms Banerjee does not have the best record for sticking by the UPA on all issues. She has also often accused the Congress of taking allies like her for granted, and of not consulting them before announcing big-ticket policy changes.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Monday that he was confident of his government's numbers - he has been called upon to make that assertion after the Congress fared poorly in assembly elections held in five states, including UP, recently. The UP results put paid to the Congress's hopes of an easing of coalition equations at the Centre. The whipping the Congress got has also led to much speculation about a Third Front that would include Ms Banerjee. Parties like Chandrababu Naidu's TDP and Naveen Patnaik's BJD have reportedly begun coveting Ms Banerjee's political support as leaders have begun talking about early elections. Dr Singh will host a dinner for his allies today.
And as the government attempts to keep its UPA flock together through statements of hope and diplomacy dinners, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who will present the Union Budget on March 16 and Mr Bansal also met senior BJP leaders Sushma, Jaitley and LK Advani to get their support for the smooth running of the Budget Session.
In this session, the government has its hands full. It has to deftly push important legislation and attempt a reform-oriented General Budget with an aggressive Opposition and allies with a populist agenda never failing to remind it of the tenuous majority it has in the Lok Sabha and its lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha.
On the first day of the session, it used President Pratibha Patil's address to detail its strategy on the several big challenges it faces. The Presidential address, lasting over an hour, to a joint sitting of Parliament, saw five disruptions as Opposition parties and allies got up in protest on various issues.