“Who was the prime minister when 63 MPs were suspended in March 1989?” asked a desolate Venkaiah Naidu, the voluble Union minister for parliamentary affairs, addressing the media in his office in Parliament, even as the Opposition denounced Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s order suspending 25 Congress MPs for unruly behaviour two days ago. “So, does the Congress believe 25 MPs today is more than 63?” he asked sardonically. Naidu’s chagrin hits the sorest point of the Modi government—how did the Congress’s 44 MPs take on an absolute government with full majority, the first in 30 years?
If the triumphant Modi government of a year ago believed the crushed Congress and other vanquished Opposition parties would just roll over and die, it was sorely mistaken. It should have known that you have to win the battle in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha for key policies and legislation to be passed. So what if you don’t have the numbers in the Upper House, the Raisina Rules clearly lay down how to win friends and influence them. There’s a whole constellation of players—from mediators, dealmakers, brokers, influence-peddlers, consultants, commentators, apart from the lawmakers and parliamentarians themselves. Has Prime Minister Narendra Modi learned the hard lesson, that for all his ‘outsider’ and ‘anti-Lutyens elitism’ bluster, he has to play by its rules if he wants to win Raisina Club? Or has Modi’s stupendous win made him so haughty, aloof and unapproachable that any rapprochement with the Opposition is impossible? It’s a bit of both, but for the first time, the capital’s players have receded into the background, with Modi the Lone Superstar reigning supreme.
The capital’s jocks, initially thrilled that ‘outsider’ Modi would need their guidance, were in for a big jolt. Not because Modi turned out to be skilful and savvy with the wanton ways of Raisina Road, but he was clearly unmoved, insisting on adopting his own way. A year of Modi in Delhi has shown that nothing moves without the PM, and so, nothing has moved! But what has confounded Delhi’s canny players is that Modi has refused to reach out to his parliamentarian colleagues—from Opposition leaders to seasoned parliamentarians.
Parliamentary lore is brimming with stories of how smooth and adroit political party managers have soothed ruffled feathers and brought cantankerous parliamentarians to the negotiating table. If prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of the last NDA government forced the late Pramod Mahajan, then parliamentary affairs minister, to thaw the freeze with Congress president Sonia Gandhi, after he called her Monica Lewinsky in a rally, the UPA government had the affable Pawan Kumar Bansal as parliamentary affairs minister, visiting LoPs Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj in their office. Venkaiah Naidu, the present minister, had an open channel with the Congress when he warmed up to negotiations on the Andhra-Telangana division. Former PM Manmohan Singh has called Opposition leaders home, to dinners. There was a roll call of the super negotiators—Pranab Mukherjee, Sushma Swaraj, Jaitley, Naidu, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmed Patel, Kamal Nath, Jaipal Reddy, Sitaram Yechury and the like.
The PM’s flimsy overtures at the start of the now jammed monsoon session of going across to the benches to greet leaders, from Sonia Gandhi to Mulayam to Mayawati to Sharad Yadav, has clearly left them unimpressed. This despite Modi’s surprise attendance at the pre-nuptial celebrations in the Laloo-Mulayam family at Saifai. It did not cut any ice with the Yadav warlords who continue to support every Opposition boycott and protest against the Modi sarkar.
The Opposition has cried hoarse that Modi has brought to Delhi his dictatorial ways from Gandhinagar, where suspending Opposition members was routine: the Speaker once suspended the entire Opposition in 2013; the assembly had never met for more than 23 days a year. His allies have petulantly thrown a fit for being ignored; potential friends like Mamata Banerjee have given the snub for being threatened with police inquiries. So, who should have reached out first, a contemptuous Modi or a downsized but belligerent Opposition?
The capital grapevine is abuzz that denying the Congress, and thus Sonia Gandhi, the privilege and perks of Leader of Opposition, and being struck off appointment panels of several crucial constitutional posts, dealt a body blow to any potential working relationship. Other slights from Modi include sacking UPA-appointed governors, blocking Congress nominees, from the Supreme Court to academic institutes.
As for Modi’s possible lieutenants, they have shrunk to just Jaitley and Naidu, with Sushma Swaraj in a pickle, and no BJP leader having any stature or prominence. Jaitley may have cracked the ice with BJD’s Naveen Patnaik but he is yet to pull it off with Sonia Gandhi. Has Modi won the outside game but lost the inside sweepstakes?