The much-feared coronavirus has managed to do what the Narendra Modi government’s combined efforts, backed by Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla and Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkiah Naidu, could not – break the logjam in Parliament and involve the agitating opposition parties in a cordial discussion.
With the first three days of the second part of the Budget session getting drowned in sloganeering by the opposition, it looked as if the two Houses would function only after the promised discussion on Delhi Riots after the Holi break. Having adjourned the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday (March 4) with the observation, “so you have come prepared to adjourn the House” after opposition went on blocking the proceedings, Chairman Venkiah Naidu tried to reason with the opposition on Thursday by emphasizing that coronavirus was an important issue that needs to be discussed in public interest. That broke the ice and the opposition allowed Health Minister Harsh Vardhan to issue a statement on Covid-19.
For the next 45 minutes, the Rajya Sabha functioned peacefully, unlike the previous three days when no discussion could take place as the opposition refused to allow anything other than a discussion on Delhi riots as demanded by them.
The opposition not only allowed Harsh Vardhan to speak without interruption, but opposition members also spoke after the statement, providing suggestions for containing the spread of coronavirus.
Lok Sabha follows suit
As if on cue from the Rajya Sabha breakthrough, members of the Lok Sabha also allowed Harsh Vardhan to speak and then gave suggestions to improve the battle against Covid-19. The peaceful remarks by Lok Sabha members were a far cry from the clashes on Monday and Tuesday, when members of the Lower House even accused each other of physical assault.
Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury led the way with his list of suggestions, followed by a number of others including Kanimozhi of the DMK who alleged that thermal screening was not being done at airports. She also suggested setting up of isolation wards to treat and monitor infected persons or those suspected to have contracted Covid-19 should be housed away from metro cities to prevent the spread of the virus.
Independent member from Maharashtra Navneet Rana’s use of a face mask was indicative of the gravity of the situation while most members appreciated the government’s efforts and called for further initiatives.
Iran rescue demand
In the Rajya Sabha, many members including Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress and Derek O’Brien gave suggestions and called for steps to check panic. Some members even suggested that steps should be taken to curb social media from spreading rumours while others suggested that a top government functionary like Health Minister Harsh Vardhan should address the nation to quell rumours and instil confidence. Supply of masks and hand sanitizers through the Public Distribution System and a 24X7 control room in every district to assist people were among other suggestions.
AIADMK member Vijila Sathyananth and MDMK’s Vaiko demanded rescue of around 900 fishermen from India who are stuck in Iran due to port lockdown following Covid-19.
It was suggested that the Ministry of External Affairs should take steps to rescue them and students from Kashmir who were also marooned in Iran. Vijila Sathyananth said Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami had written to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar seeking rescue of the fishermen stranded in Iran.
India is already in touch with Iran to ensure the safe evacuation of Indian nationals who are unable to come out of Iran.
Vaiko mentioned that families of the fishermen are waiting with tears in their eyes and the Government should take immediate mentioned. Several other members also pressed for urgent rescue of those trapped in Iran where the authorities are grappling with nearly 3,000 infections.
Short-lived ceasefire, suspensions
The Covid-19 bonhomie, however, did not last long in Parliament. Soon after submission of their suggestions to contain the virus, Congress and other party members went back to their disruption mode in Rajya Sabha. Chairman Venkiah Naidu tried to run the House, telling members that no government business was being taken up and zero hour was the right of the members to speak on behalf of the people on matters of urgent importance. It seems the disruption will continue till discussion of the Delhi riots – tentatively scheduled for March 11 as desired by the government.
In the Lok Sabha, things have taken a turn for the worse. Speaker Om Birla suspended Manicka Tagore; Gaurav Gogoi; Remya Haridas; Dean Kuriakose; Rajmohan Unnithan; T.N. Prathapan; and Ravneet Singh Bittu, all from the Congress, till the end of the Budget session. Their ‘unruly behaviour’ on Tuesday when Rama Devi was chairing the House was reported to the Speaker. It was highlighted that they even snatched and tore papers, throwing them at the presiding officer during their ‘siege’ of the Speaker’s chair. Having already issued warnings about placards being displayed in the House and proceedings being disrupted with sloganeering from the well of the House, Om Birla has now cracked the whip. On Monday and Tuesday, Congress MPs had crossed over and were virtually coming to blows with their BJP counterparts, triggering complaints from both sides.
During the discussion on Covid-19, CPI member Binoy Viswam was struggling to speak due to sore throat. As he tried to clear his throat and coughed, Venkiah Naidu mentioned in a lighter vein that ‘you need a check-up” and the House saw smiling faces. While Viswam coughed and continued, Naidu advised him to take care of his health.
Shortly afterwards, another member suggested that ‘thermal scanners’ should be installed in Parliament to prevent coronavirus from spreading. This also elicited quite some smiles, once again. After the suspensions in Lok Sabha, the smiles are bound to vanish and the masks will come off. Whether the much-demanded discussion on Delhi riots take place after the Holi holidays is a matter of speculation now, but the discussion on budget is now heading to the emergency ward.
Most members feel discussions on demands for grants will be rushed off towards the Budget session’s end, with politics over riots overshadowing budget allocations.