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Unlike the Last 10 Years, Rahul Won't Let Parliament Be a Cakewalk for Modi

After all, it is not Rahul Gandhi himself, but the issues that he raised that matter more to the people of India

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It is appropriate that we discuss the inaugural session of the Lok Sabha fresh off the election oven in the week that Team India magnificently won the ICC T20 Cricket World Cup.

It was finally good to see the Lower House functioning like a real one, though with warts and flaws much like the uneven pitches in the US. But, as a famous commentator frequently talks about cricket being the winner in the end, we could say that in the end, the winner is parliamentary democracy.

So, what is new?

Technically, nothing. But a decade of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rule had meant that the system had been substantially 'presidentialised' with the towering leader behaving more like a US-style head of state than the head of the government in a Westminster model in which every MP counts.
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The prime minister in such systems is often described as a 'first among equals' in a cabinet of competent leaders, and this idea has been overturned in the last 10 years by Modi's monarchical style.

Also, for the better part of the years since 2009, Parliament more often than not, has been paralysed by noisy protests and frequent adjournments, with triggers ranging from the 2G corruption scandal that marked the defeat of the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) in 2014 to issues like the failed demonetisation of high-value rupee notes in 2016 and the vexed farm laws that Modi was forced to withdraw in his second term.

The Game is On

Modi is still very much a presidential PM, but there was enough evidence in the new House during the debate on the Motion of Thanks to President Draupadi Murmu's address, that the current Lok Sabha can raise substantive issues that should determine the quality of governance. It is also evenly poised (much like the T20 final in which India barely got past strong South Africa).

That brings us to the big question: Is Rahul Gandhi as the freshly minted Leader of the Opposition heading the INDIA grouping as good as Team India coach Rahul Dravid in producing winners? I can hear a howl of "no" to that one, but there is ground to believe that the prince of a beleaguered Congress party has found his form.

The parliamentary clash between Rahul and Modi left much to be desired for lovers of the old parliamentary culture who have seen better debates, but there was enough substance to drive home a political truth: The game is on.

First up, the Opposition MPs count for more than 230 in the 543-member Lok Sabha whereas the BJP on its own has only 240 in its coalition, i.e., the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The Opposition's headcount-led confidence was evident in the heckling that Modi faced (something that could have been avoided), but more important was the gauche but cocky style in which Rahul Gandhi addressed Modi, his government, and the issues at hand. 

As I see it, Rahul Gandhi bowled clever googlies at Modi that he or his party colleagues were forced to play, while Modi's combative responses resembled angry bouncers scoring more in visual appeal than in getting Congress wickets.

The good news is that Rahul raised urgent issues including irregularities in the NEET medical entrance examination, the crisis in Manipur, jobs, and the plight of farmers. He courted controversy by treading into the grey areas of compensation for martyred soldiers under the Agniveer scheme, and again when he flashed a portrait of Lord Shiva to emphasise Hinduism as a non-violent religion and Modi not being its representative.

But the very fact that a battery of ministers and Modi himself were forced to intervene in defence showed the effect of his debut speech. The Congress leader's speech faced much criticism, but it also gathered support across social media, suggesting that the fact that things were being discussed across a larger spectrum was a minor victory in a quest to revive a dormant parliamentary culture.

There are those still hell-bent on seeing Rahul Gandhi as a princely inheritor of a dynastic organisation, and Modi leads that charge.  A nuanced view would show that it is not him, but it is the issues that he has raised that matter more for the people of India. This is where, despite his flaws, Rahul Gandhi batted with aplomb.

If proof was needed about how that worked, you have to look at how Modi spoke in the Rajya Sabha, and not what he rambled on amid unwarranted heckling in the Lok Sabha. In a clever floor strategy, Modi's words targeted the Gandhi family for using Dalits and backward castes as a proxy for its own rule. But, given that the Congress party now leads a strong backward-caste-supported alliance and has a century-old history of supporting the Dalits that Mahatma Gandhi used to call Harijans, the criticism rings hollow.

What really matters is that Modi, speaking in the Rajya Sabha, detailed government efforts to fix the conflict in Manipur and the NEET fiasco hurting millions of careers. Attempts to portray the Congress party as anti-Hindu is an old BJP trick and it seems that is facing the law of diminishing returns.
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No longer a 'Balak Buddhi'

A word must also be said on Rahul Gandhi taunting Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla for greeting Modi with bent shoulders and himself with just a firm handshake. A message has to go out that the Speaker is an institution of the Constitution and not a loyalist from the PM's party – much as that fact cannot be denied. It is in such brownie point-scoring that Rahul Gandhi has shown that he is no longer the pappu or balak buddhi (immature person) that he has been portrayed to be by Modi and his party colleagues.

The fact that a horrible stampede at a religious gathering killed more than 120 people at Hathras in Uttar Pradesh even as Parliament was having its first debate in a new Lok Sabha is a grim reminder that governance matters more than rhetoric. Against the backdrop of the collapse of airport roofs in three cities, and a shaky start to a new compendium of criminal procedures (the Bharatiya Nyaya Samhita) shows that a third term for Modi, much as he would claim an electoral hat-trick, is not an easy turf to play on.

As they say in cricket, the pitch starts turning as a match progresses. Wickets fall, catches are taken, and matches are lost when the powers that be bat more with political strokes than governance drives.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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