The coronavirus pandemic, slide of the economy and resultant rise in unemployment, the persisting tension at the Ladakh border and the political posturing ahead of Bihar Assembly elections are among the top topics that are expected to trigger debates when the Monsoon Session of Parliament starts next week.
Political controversies – the Kangana Ranaut-Shiv Sena spat for instance – that have emerged out of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death many engage the treasury benches in heated exchanges with the Opposition.
Led by the Congress, the opposition parties are planning to forge a united front and question the Narendra Modi government about handling of the coronavirus pandemic, impact of the lockdown on the poor and migrant labourers, besides the sharp plunge in the economy during the first quarter of the current financial year.
The treasury benches are also bracing up for a barrage of questions on India’s stand-off with China in eastern Ladakh where an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation is threatening to blow up into a conflict at the slightest provocation.
Spotlight on Bihar
Many political parties including the BJP, Congress, JD(U), RJD and the Left are eying the forthcoming Assembly elections in Bihar and this is expected to reflect in their actions during the monsoon session. Actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death could be expected to be an issue that parties plan to play up – the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar has put its weight behind the late actor’s family while the Maharashtra government was opposed to a CBI inquiry into the untimely demise of the ‘Dhoni’ star. The resultant controversies involving demolition of actor Kangana Ranaut’s office in Mumbai after she took on the Shiv Sena and the crackdown on Sushant’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty by central agencies like the CBI, Narcotics Control Bureau and the Enforcement Directorate are also likely to come up in this context.
The other big Bihar angle to the monsoon session is the election of a deputy chairman for the Rajya Sabha. With the NDA picking up Harivansh Narayan Singh of JD(U), led by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, as its candidate once again, and the opposition choosing Manoj Jha of RJD, led by former Bihar chief minister Lalu’s family, it has become an “All Bihar” contest. Nitish Kumar has personally called up some non-NDA leaders like Naveen Patnaik to bolster support for Harivansh who is all set to return as deputy to Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu. When he contested in 2018 for the post, Harivansh bagged 125 votes and defeated BK Hariprasad of the Congress. This time he may improve his tally as several parties like the BJD, YSR Congress Party and TRS may back the NDA candidate, BJP leaders said. The Congress was earlier working on pitching Tiruchi Siva of the DMK as the united opposition candidate, but the plan did not work out.
Election of deputy speaker
While the election for the deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha would be held on September 14, unless Harivansh is elected unanimously, the Congress party has also called for election of a deputy speaker for the Lok Sabha. A full year after the Narendra Modi government won the 2019 general election, the Lok Sabha is still without a deputy to Speaker Om Birla. In the previous Lok Sabha, the BJP had preferred to leave the slot to AIADMK and M Thambidurai was the deputy Speaker till the 2019 election. This time the BJP may provide an opportunity to the BJD that has been backing the Modi government on crucial issues with its votes in the Lok Sabha and, more importantly, the Rajya Sabha. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha, has written to the Speaker seeking election of a deputy speaker, but the ruling dispensation is yet to open its cards.
Shifts, no Question Hour – A session of many firsts
Due to COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing norms, both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are taking several unprecedented initiatives including a kind of shift system where one house works in the morning and the other in the evening. In between, the entire area where the seating arrangement has been made for the MPs will be sanitised. The system has been chalked out as no suitable place has been found to adhere to social distancing norms, and galleries within the Parliament House will also be utilised along with the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha chambers. Screens have been installed at these locations to ensure interaction. Except the first day, Lok Sabha sittings will be in the evening while Rajya Sabha will hold its sessions in the morning. This is the first time members of one house will have seating arrangement in the chamber of the other house.
Another first would be the dispensation of the usual Question Hour and several other changes to accommodate anti-COVID measures. MPs have been advised to go for COVID-19 tests, wear face masks, follow social distancing and sanitise their hands frequently to prevent spread of the deadly virus. Veteran MPs feel attendance may be affected due to apprehensions over COVID-19, especially among MPs with health conditions or senior citizens who face a higher risk. After the tragic demise of Congress MP from Kanyakumari, Vasanth Kumar, many MPs feel that utmost precautions have to be followed and nothing should be left to chance.
Every party has been informed how many members can be accommodated in their own house and what will be the seating arrangement for others. Those sitting in the other house or galleries will be connected through video conferences and that is going to make this session a technological challenge too. As a result of these restrictions, the usual sloganeering, rushing to the well of the houses, hurried media statements and impromptu gatherings at the Central Hall and corridors may be missing during the monsoon session. Entry of visitors and media into the Parliament House has also been curtailed in a big way.
On Opposition’s agenda
The Congress, Left, TMC, NCP, RJD and Shiv Sena are planning to corner the government on its response to COVID-19, especially the lockdown and the aid package for the poor that is seen as inadequate. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been consistently emphasising about the need for a better relief package that can turn around the economy too by inducing demand. Quoting former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and Finance Ministry’s former chief economic advisor Kaushik Basu, he has been asserting that the government is on the wrong path and decisions were being taken without consulting the opposition parties. For health reasons, Congress’ interim president Sonia Gandhi may miss a significant part of the session, but the party is likely to put up a feisty show during the monsoon session to get over the recent pangs of a rift within its ranks due to a letter written by 23 senior leaders. The Congress is also planning to condemn the BJP and the central government for ‘conspiring’ to topple the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan, apart from dethroning the Kamal Nath Government in Madhya Pradesh.
Ordinances and Bills on cards
On its part, the Modi government plans to replace a number of ordinances issued since the Budget session of Parliament with bills and, get them cleared, along with additional approvals for expenditure due to COVID-19.Important ordinances that have to be replaced include The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, the Farmers Produce Trade And Commerce (Promotion And Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020; and the Farmers (Empowerment And Protection) Agreement On Price Assurance And Farm Services Ordinance; Salaries and Allowances of Ministers (Amendment) Ordinance 2020 the Salaries, Allowances and Pensions of Members of Parliament (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020 promulgated on April 7; the Epidemic Diseases (Amendment) Ordinance — promulgated to cut the pay of ministers and MPs — will also be replaced.
The government also plans to take up a number of bills during the two-week session and this includes The Companies (Amendment) Bill, Major Port Authorities Bill, The Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, and The Indian Institutes of Information Technology Laws (Amendment) Bill. A number of regional parties are also planning to take up the central government’s hesitation in paying GST compensation to state governments. They feel finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman should find more resources, through enhanced borrowing and other means, rather than leaving the States in a lurch.