On March 28, the Rajya Sabha bid farewell to its retiring members. In their speeches, several of them, particularly those from opposition parties, expressed their gratitude for the guidance they received from the Leader of the House, Arun Jaitley.
Jaitley, also the finance minister in the Narendra Modi government, was among the retiring members who have been re-elected. On Tuesday, Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu said that Jaitley, after his re-election, is reappointed the Leader of the House. But an ailing Jaitley is yet to take the oath for his new Rajya Sabha term.
In the last couple of Parliament sessions, the short winter session and the two-part Budget session that ended on Friday, it has galled Opposition members to see Jaitley’s role as the Leader of the House getting gradually diminished.
Ever since BJP chief Amit Shah’s debut in the Rajya Sabha in August, BJP’s floor strategists in the House, particularly Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Vijay Goel and his predecessor Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, are seen turning in plain sight to Shah for guidance, even as Jaitley would sit forlorn.
Shah’s presence has also meant that it isn’t always the Opposition, but the members of the treasury benches who are taking to slogan shouting and disrupting the House. Truces, which were common between Jaitley and Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad – with both sharing heartening mutual respect – have become rarer. Treasury benches, instead of ensuring the House runs, have tried to outdo the Opposition in disruptions.
Azad said on Wednesday that there had been no outreach, not even back-channel talks, from the government to find a way out of the impasse. “This is the first time no senior minister has approached me or any of my colleagues in the Opposition. It should be surprising for the entire country,” he said.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kumar disputed this. Kumar said Jaitley had spoken to Azad, as did he. Kumar also said he had also reached out to Mallikarjun Kharge, while Vijay Goel dropped in at Azad’s house. “Not just once but several times we have reached out,” the minister said.
But a Trinamool leader, who agreed with Azad’s assessment, said the outreach was during the first half of the Budget session, and the trust deficit had increased with the treasury benches encouraging AIADMK members to disrupt the House.
In the past four years, Jaitley has been the bridge between the government and Opposition parties. Increasingly, other ministers have been asked by the party leadership to take upon that role but with limited success. They lack Jaitley's stature, his equations and relationships built over several decades with leaders of Opposition parties, and also his disarming charm.
With Jaitley ailing and his advice increasingly ignored, the BJP and Modi government have found their engagement souring beyond repair not only with the Congress, but also Opposition parties that had until now been equidistant from both the Congress and BJP. Nearly all of BJP’s allies are upset, and Telugu Desam Party has quit the alliance. The government’s engagement with the media is becoming more adversarial by the day.
On Thursday, Jaitley tweeted about his health condition. “I am being treated for kidney-related problems and certain infections that I have contacted. I am, therefore, currently working from controlled environment at home. The future course of my treatment would be determined by the doctors treating me,” he said.
Jaitley, to prevent the risk of catching infection, is likely to be away from public life for at least the next few months. While he will continue working from home, forthcoming developments could soon make the BJP top leadership sorely miss Jaitley’s reassuring presence in Parliament, North Block and the party office, particularly as the Modi government enters the all-important final year of its five-year tenure.