Prime minister Narendra Modi must pick his battles carefully now. He needs to avoid contentious legislations like land and GST, and focus on policy measures to support implementation of flagship schemes
A curtailed three-week monsoon session of Parliament begins tomorrow. Thanks to Lalitgate and Vyapam, the expectations of a breakthrough in the session in passing the two critical legislations—the Land Acquisition and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bills—have dissipated. Whatever the recommendations of the joint committee of the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha on the Land Bill, the outcome of the prime minister’s meeting with chief ministers last week made it clear that the NDA government will find it difficult to push the Bill in Parliament.
While the nine Congress chief ministers skipped the NITI Aayog governing council meeting; chief ministers of important non-NDA states like Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal also gave it a go-by making it amply clear that it is difficult for them to support dilution of the consent and social impact assessment clauses of the UPA’s 2013 Act. This, in effect, means that the NDA should now forget any forward movement in getting the modified Land Acquisition Bill passed in Parliament in the near future.
The good part is, even if the non-NDA states are opposed to the central Bill, they can go ahead and amend their land laws to liberalise the norms and help industry acquire land—ten NDA states are already in the process of doing that and finance minister Arun Jaitley has done well by assuring them of the Centre’s support in implementation through the Presidential Assent route. He told the media after the meeting that the states which want to develop fast can suggest their own state legislation and the Centre would approve that legislation, in case it fails to build a consensus on the central legislation.
The Opposition, no doubt, will term this as a move of desperation, but it is a fact that in areas, including land and labour, in which the state government can also legislate, chances are—and this is a better option—that the reforms would be led by the states. Rajasthan has done it with labour laws and other states, including Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, are following the same course. In the case of the land Bill as well, Rajasthan has introduced a Bill on the lines of the Centre’s Bill and the select committee of the assembly has only suggested minor tinkering like enhancement in the compensation for farmers. If the monsoon session is a complete washout, Rajasthan may lead the states in doing what the finance minister has suggested.
But the real challenge for the NDA government will be getting Bills like GST passed which require both Parliament’s and the state assemblies’ nod. The Congress party now wants the removal of the 1% additional tax on inter-state trade to compensate the manufacturing states and also an exemption-free GST. If the party succeeds in extending the non-NDA opposition to the Land Bill to GST and other legislations, the NDA will find itself in a bind.
Prime minister Narendra Modi has been trying to persuade leaders like TMC chief Mamata Banerjee and BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik, along with the NCP leader Sharad Pawar to support the NDA’s legislative agenda in Parliament. A glimpse of some success was visible in the Budget session but it has failed to take any concrete shape as yet.
Both the Houses passed 24 Bills, the highest in any Budget session in the last six years. This included GST Constitution Amendment Bill by the Lok Sabha; passing by both the Houses of the Constitution Amendment relating to operationalisation of the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh; the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill; the Black Money Bill; and enactments relating to transparent allocation of coal and other minerals. The government then referred the Land Acquisition Bill to the joint committee of Parliament and the GST Bill to the select committee of the Rajya Sabha to take the sting out of the opposition unity on these two Bills, but that doesn’t appear to be working.
Both the panels will be submitting their reports in the beginning of the session, but the chances of any serious legislative business happening during the session are remote as the opposition would rake the demand of Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s resignation for their alleged help to Lalit Modi, and that of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in the Vyapam scam in Parliament.
With the BJP ruling out any such possibility, the NDA’s track record of a fairly successful conduct of Parliament since the time it has come to power is at stake. Since May 2014, the Lok Sabha has held 90 sittings while the Rajya Sabha has had 87—the highest in the last ten years. Both the Houses have also performed the best in the last six years in terms of passing the Bills by clearing 47 Bills.
Prime minister Modi would most certainly not like to lose from this track record; but for that, he will have to pick his battles carefully from here. If it is difficult to move on the Land and the GST Bills, he can leave them for the time being on the deliberations table till he finds himself in a position to muster a majority in the Rajya Sabha. There are other non-contentious reform legislations that can be pursued for now, on which he can rope in non-NDA allies.
Then, the NDA government’s strongest point is that it is one of the most stable ones that the country has had and it can drive policy reforms through administrative measures. In less than one month’s time, the prime minister will be speaking again from the ramparts of the Red Fort and he will have to tell the people how many of the promises he made last year he has fulfilled. Most of the schemes and the announcements he made—Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, Digital India, Skill India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Adarsh Gram Yojana, Make-in-India and scrapping of the Planning Commission—have been acted upon.
Though some of the plans, like providing toilets in every school within one year, are lagging behind seriously, Make-in-India and Digital India require policy support measures to start yielding good results, and Jan-Dhan will work only after Aadhaar-seeding is adequately done and all of the government’s social spending is covered through direct benefit transfers (DBT); they all have potential to turn into success stories.
A total of 16.73 crore bank accounts has been opened as of July 8, under Jan-Dhan and the two pension schemes—Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana—have also attracted huge participation. The commerce ministry has announced that foreign direct investment into the country has seen a 48% growth in the seven-month period since the launch of Make-in-India in September last year.
While the Prime Minister’s Office has already asked the ministries and the NITI Aayog to provide details of the progress on the announcements made by the prime minister on August 15 last year, he would do well by outlining the policy measures to ensure their successful implementation with the help of states instead of crying hoarse at the Opposition’s approach in Parliament.