Parliament Logjam: BJP's Pegasus Missteps Help a Clueless Opposition
But the Opposition has not been able to strike a decisive blow to an already worried BJP government.
The monsoon session of Parliament is headed for a washout as a determined Opposition presses home its Pegasus point over a defensive government. For the first time in the seven years that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in office, the Opposition has successfully stonewalled both Houses of Parliament, even the Lok Sabha, where the BJP has a commanding majority.
Unless a compromise is reached, the current session could well end in a whimper without a single debate, discussion or important legislation. It’s a political black mark against the ruling dispensation and puts Modi in danger of joining the ranks of three other Prime Ministers who faced similar ignominy — P.V. Narasimha Rao, I.K. Gujral and Manmohan Singh.
Pegasus Is A Major Worry For The BJP
There are three points on which the Opposition has got the Modi government over a barrel —
The government’s persistent refusal to reveal whether or not it bought the controversial Pegasus spyware from Israeli technology firm NSO. Evasion is a negative tactic and tends to arouse suspicion. The matter has now ended up in the Supreme Court, where two leading journalists have filed a petition demanding a simple “yes or no’’ answer to the query.
The government’s obvious reluctance to order an inquiry into revelations that the Pegasus spyware was used to tap phones of leading Opposition politicians, journalists, civil society activists, and even a constitutional authority. This is in sharp contrast to the governments of four other countries in the eye of the Pegasus storm — France, Israel, Hungary and Morocco — which set up probes immediately.
The possibility of more damaging disclosures as investigations outside India to ferret out the truth about a scandal with international dimensions get underway.
The deepening shadow of the Pegasus controversy is turning into a major worry for the Modi government. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) must remember only too well how it managed to corner Congress governments in the past by forcing entire sessions to grind to a halt on a single issue.
Disruptions Have Borne Fruit In The Past
The first time it used this tactic successfully was during the winter session of 1995, when it did not allow either House to function over corruption allegations against Sukh Ram, who was Telecom Minister in the then Narasimha Rao government.
In 2012, another winter session fell off the map as the BJP went for the Manmohan Singh government’s jugular to demand a joint parliamentary committee investigation into the 2G telecom scam.
When the Congress tried to slam the BJP for wasting public money by holding up Parliament, top leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley justified the tactic as “legitimate’’. Swaraj had said, “Not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy.’’ A few days earlier, Jaitley, too, had said, “There are occasions when an obstruction in Parliament brings greater benefits to the country.’’
It certainly brought the BJP huge benefits. The stalling of an entire session of Parliament helped the party tar the Congress with the corruption brush and burn it into public memory. The tactic paid off handsomely in the elections that followed. Atal Behari Vajpayee formed the first BJP-led government at the centre in 1996 and Modi won the BJP its first full-majority government in 2014.
The Government's Big Fumble
Today, ironically, the Opposition is still feeling its way around the Pegasus controversy. It has not been able to use the revelations to articulate and frame an issue with popular appeal. Privacy and phone tapping, among other issues, do not evoke the same outrage here as they do in the West. And the disclosures of the Pegasus project are still quite sketchy.
What has given the Opposition grist to fuel its attack is the fumbling response of the government. The clumsy attempt to stop an inquiry, for instance, led to unseemly and hilarious scenes at a meeting of the Standing Committee on Information and Technology headed by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, and helped boost the Opposition’s Pegasus campaign.
Tharoor had announced that his Committee would conduct an inquiry into the revelations and summoned a meeting to set the ball rolling. And so began a comedy of errors. First, the three secretaries of the relevant government departments tried to wriggle out of attending the meeting. Tharoor denied them leave of absence and ordered them to be present.
Then, the BJP decided to stop the meeting from being held at all costs, with the obvious aim of preventing Tharoor from going ahead with his plans. So, its members went to the meeting room to disrupt proceedings but refused to sign the attendance register so that officially, there was no quorum to call the meeting to order.
A ruckus ensued, during which BJP MP Nishikant Dubey claimed Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra called him a “Bihari gunda’’. But he was hoist with his own petard when the feisty lady pointed out that the attendance records show that Dubey was not present at the meeting. So, how could she possibly have called him a “Bihari gunda”, she pointed out on Twitter in a fiery exchange with the BJP MP. Dubey, of course, had no answer, except to rant against the Trinamool for being ``anti-Hindi’’ and ``anti-Bihari’’.
Missing Spunk In The BJP
This is a government headed by a Prime Minister who has a formidable reputation as a master communicator. But for once, it seems to be at a loss for words and has fallen back on worn-out tropes. The missing spunk in the government is proving to be a shot in the arm for the Opposition. It has raised the ante and is now threatening to stall the entire monsoon session.
Time will tell whether the Pegasus controversy can become the central issue for 2024, or even whether it can be the glue that binds disparate Opposition parties together in an anti-Modi front. The monsoon session is all about the Opposition’s efforts to evolve a strategy to take on Modi. Subsequent sessions of Parliament will either see the strategy taking shape or coming apart as personal differences take over.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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