The main Opposition partys finally got its act together. And it could not have picked a more sensitive issue to embarrass the Centre. For over a week now, Congress MPs have disrupted proceedings in the Lok Sabha. The issue under debate is the Gujarat governments decision to lift the ban on state employees participating in rss activities. The Opposition wants Parliament to debate this under Rule 184 - which calls for a vote after the arguments. While the government insists on Rule 193, where the motion is discussed and left at that.
"If the allies support the government, they endorse the rss," says Congress chief whip Priyaranjan Das Munshi. "By forcing a vote, well expose the nda partners."
Meanwhile, nda allies such as the tdp, dmk and inld have already indicated to the government that they cannot vote in support of the motion. On his part, the prime ministers also upped the pressure on his partners. At a meeting with allies last week, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan said that effectively, Parliament would be voting on whether the government failed in its duty to uphold its constitutional responsibility to protect secularism or not. Once the words constitutional responsibility came in, Mahajan pointed out, the prime minister would feel morally obliged to resign if he lost the vote. A.B. Vajpayee, who was present at the meeting, did not contradict Mahajan.
At first, the government tried to get the Opposition to drop the crucial phrase. But this didnt deter the allies who insist that regardless of the wording of the motion, they couldnt grant the rss legitimacy by bailing the government out. "No one will remember the wording, theyll only recall we voted in favour of the rss," says a tdp MP. "And this we cant do."
The Congress says it has little sympathy for Vajpayees high moral stand. "This is not a censure motion," says party spokesperson Ajit Jogi. "Why should the PM resign?" Adds Das Munshi: "If the PM wants to make this a prestige issue, what can I do?" In fact, at the beginning of the session, Sonia Gandhi told her MPs that she wanted to expose the government on this issue. "I want no compromise, we must follow this through," she said. As a next step, the Congress plans a mammoth rally at Delhis Ramlila grounds on March 6 where Sonia will attack the government for endorsing the rss agenda.
Meanwhile, bjp strategists are trying for a way out. One view is to let things carry on until the Congress loses steam. "In fact, it is the Congress that is losing out as it is the budget thats usually discussed at this time," says a bjp MP. "So they are losing out an opportunity to criticise the government."
Regardless, the Lok Sabha speaker has asked the PM to end the impasse. One solution seen is that Parliament should first vote on whether to debate the motion under Rule 193 or 184. "The allies then would have no hesitation in voting along with the bjp," says the bjp MP. "And then the motion could be discussed without a vote."
"How can the House decide this?" asks Jogi. "It is for the speaker to decide under which rule the discussion should take place," he adds, indicating that the Congress was not willing to go along with the government on this one.
Another view is that the Centre should informally get the Gujarat government to withdraw its circular. Alladi Rajkumar, the tdps Lok Sabha leader, has already gone on record stating that he would like the Centre to advise the Gujarat government to withdraw its circular. But that is easier said than done.
For one, Vajpayee does not enjoy a good rapport with Keshubhai Patel, who is an rss hardliner. And, from all accounts, Advani is loathe to intervene in this matter. In fact, Patel last month sent a letter to the home minister asking him two questions: could the state government issue such a circular and was the rss a banned organisation? Advani chose to answer only the second question by quoting the Supreme Court judgement which lifted the ban on the rss. As for the first query, he forwarded the letter to the department of personnel, claiming that his ministry did not deal with civil service rules.
Though Advani ended his Rajya Sabha address with a veiled plea to the Gujarat CM by saying he left the matter to "the judgement of the state government", its unlikely that Patel will leap to the Centres aid.
Which leaves the bjp little option but to initiate dialogue with the Congress. But according to sources, both Vajpayee and Advani are clear that any such overture should be made only after the Congress rally.
But by raising this issue rather than any other - such as the Kargil report, the budget or the vhps stand on Deepa Mehtas Water - the Congress has hit the bjp where it hurts most: its saffron underbelly.