The Budget Session of Parliament concluded its first phase last week with the passing of the Motion of Thanks to President Ram Nath Kovind’s address to a Joint Sitting of Parliament, and conclusion of a General Discussion on the Union Budget for 2021- 22.
Both the Houses saw disturbances over the government’s handling of the farmers’ agitation against the recently passed three farm laws. While the Rajya Sabha could recover faster and disposed of the Motion of Thanks after reaching an agreement on an extended debate, inclusive of the farmers’ issue, the Lok Sabha almost lost the first week, as the Opposition stayed away from the debate on the Motion, insisting on a separate discussion on the subject. The Treasury Benches were at their wit’s end, unable to understand the “duality” of the Opposition behaviour, particularly of the Congress Party, in the two Houses.
The Opposition including the Congress took active part in the Rajya Sabha debate and later heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reply also, except for the Trinamul Congress members who staged a walk-out before Modi began.
In the Lok Sabha, the Opposition not only stalled the proceedings to discuss the farmers’ nationwide agitation first, but even staged a walk-out, including the Congress, during the Prime Minister’s reply speech.
The government including the PM wondered how could a party have different “strategies” on the same subject in the two Houses. The debate on the Motion of Thanks did not however end without some excitement. After inviting the farmers afresh for a discussion on their demands, and accusing the Congress of doing a U-turn on agriculture reforms, the Prime Minister said there was a need to be cautious, and not to be misled by “andolanjeevis” (professional protesters).
Replying to the Rajya Sabha debate, he said there were “shramjeevis” (labourers) and “buddhijeevis” (intellectuals) and now a new community of andolanjeeviswas active. They could be seen espousing any cause, lawyers’, students’, workers’. In fact, they were like “parjeevis” (parasites), he said. The Opposition parties too must have seen them in action wherever these parties were in power, he said. The agitating farmers should be careful and see if they had not fallen in to the trap of the professional protesters, who did not have anybody’s welfare in their hearts, the PM tried to convey. In the Lok Sabha, the PM however clarified that he did not doubt the purity of “andolankaris” (protesters) who were different from “andolanjeevis.” Even after more than 32 hours debate in the two Houses, the Opposition and the government were not closer to resolving their differences on the farm laws and why was there an agitation against them. While the Opposition believed the laws had the potential to destroy the farmers’ livelihood; the Government insisted none had pointed out which Clause of the laws was bad. The two Houses had long discussions on the Union Budget.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi spoke in the Lok Sabha, insisting the farm laws were not legislated for farmers’ interests, while former finance minister P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal raised doubts in the Rajya Sabha about government data, and sought to know how allocations for Defence and Health were “lowered.”
Sibal said the government was pursuing growth without equity. Chidambaram went further and said the Budget was for the rich only, and had nothing for those rendered jobless by the Covid-19 lockdown. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman had the last word on the subject.
In both Houses, she was her combative self, and gave data for welfare schemes on housing for the poor, power supply, rural roads, free cooking gas, credit guarantee for MSMEs, and cash transfers to small farmers, and asked if these were for the rich. She quoted UPA’s 2007-08 Budget capital expenditure figures to show how they were “fudged.”
The lasting images from the first phase of the Budget Session were of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad. The PM broke down more than twice during his farewell speech for Azad, who was retiring from membership of the House, along with three others from Jammu and Kashmir. Azad too could not control his tears as he replied to Modi’s comments. Former minister Mallikarjun Kharge of the Congress is now Leader of the Opposition in the Upper House.