The party with a difference has done it again. When the BJP as the main opposition, repeatedly disrupted Parliament and opted to allow the Railway Budget and the Finance Bill to be passed without discussion, it was only emulating the past performance of the Congress party. It even copied the Congress when it came to pocketing all the privileges of representing ordinary people in the country’s highest legislative body and refusing to do its job.
But in trying to push their demands by way of a memorandum and then accusing the mildest man in the present government of being ‘‘discourteous and rude’’ , it was indeed a party with a difference.
That the BJP dared to substitute a memorandum for public debate, reveals the depth to which our politics has sunk. A few years ago, Members of Parliament would have relished the prospect of a debate in parliament under the continuous scrutiny of live television coverage. They would have embarrassed the Finance Minister on the many goof-ups in the Finance Bill and probably nick-named him ‘‘rollback minister’’ for the 55 amendments that were made before it was passed.
The BJP, however, plays it differently. MPs have the unique privilege of placing their suggestions, observations or criticism on the floor of Parliament; but instead of using it effectively, it hatched a plan to boycott Parliament. It was too busy protesting to care about the provisions of the Finance Bill and how its provisions would affect its own support base. It woke up at the last moment and suddenly tried to hustle in its point of view in the form of an unacceptable ‘‘memorandum’’ of demands submitted directly to the Prime Minister. Having failed in its objective, the BJP had to roll out the heavy-artillery to make its criticism of Dr Manmohan Singh sound credible, but even the former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s public lament lent no credibility to the opposition drama. Curiously enough, the ‘memorandum’ itself does not seem to have found its way to the media, so we remain clueless about the great national causes that were sought to be addressed through that hurried effort.
Why did the BJP feel the need to force changes in the budget through a ‘‘memorandum’’? And what would have happened if the PM had accepted the paper and ignored it? After all, the PM receives hundreds of memoranda, the bulk of them are simply ignored. In this case, it may have only provided fodder for another controversy. The BJP may be ruled by the Hindutva philosophy, but is financed by businessmen and traders who expect their money’s worth. By trying to force changes through ‘memorandum’, the BJP may have been signalling to supporters that it didn’t fail them as elected representatives; but the mild Dr Singh seems to have surprised them with his refusal to accept their note. Consider the situation. Ever since the budget was announced, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has met a wide cross-section of people, offering to consider, clarify and correct the many inconsistencies in the Finance Bill. Although details were not available while going to press, the 55 amendments suggest that he has kept his word. If any of these were part of BJP’s ‘memorandum’, it could have easily claimed credit for the changes. With that possibility cut off by the PM’s action, their only alternative was name-calling.
Two sets of businesses that would have ‘invested’ in the BJP-led combine in the expectation that it would be back in power are probably stock market traders and transporters. In fact, many of the party’s politicians have close links with both. Stock traders were badly affected by the high Securities Transaction Tax (STT) announced in the budget. But the Finance Minister (FM) has more than made up for it with a generous roll back, even while he stuck to the concept of such a tax. The opposition had no role to play in forcing the change and earned no brownie points from its supporters.
Middle class Indians are supposed to be supportive of the BJP. But here too, the FM surprised the lowest tax bracket by raising the bar for not filing returns to ensure that income up to Rs 1 lakh is not taxed. Again, no credit to the opposition at all.
A third set of people who include a large segment of BJP sympathisers are the truckers and transporters, who have paralysed the movement of goods for nearly a week. In this case, an alert opposition would have exploited clear inconsistencies in the budget speech, the Finance Bill and the explanatory memorandum, to embarrass the government. Especially since the Finance Minister repeatedly said that service tax was only being imposed on goods booking agents, while his Finance Bill and its explanation said otherwise. Here too, we learn that the Finance Minister has made the necessary clarifications. Then there were a host of little irritants that needed further clarity which have been addressed without any political embarrassment.
One of these was to restrict the scope of prosecution for furnishing false accounts by removing an explanation that said tax officials only needed to prove there was a general intent to evade tax. Another was the clarification that the annual information return for tracking high-value transactions did not apply to individuals.
Will this state of affairs be allowed to continue for the next five years? Will the ruling coalition call the shots and do what it wishes because the opposition prefers to stay out of parliament? In that case, we are probably set for another long innings by the Congress at the Centre.
At the state level too, the shameless granting of pre-election largess by the ruling party has been ignored by opposition leaders who are busy with issues such as hoisting the national flag, beating up an effigy of Mani Shankar Aiyer, or singing Vande Materam. The next two months will tell us whether this formula wins them the Assembly elections or disgusts the voters and marginalises rabble rousing parties.