Both Houses of Parliament witnessed uproar by opposition parties over price rise and the increase in railway fares and freight on the first day of the Budget session on Monday.
The day’s proceedings showed the government intends to be tough in the Lok Sabha, where it has a substantial majority, and flexible in the Rajya Sabha, where it is way short of the halfway mark.
The Lok Sabha saw repeated adjournments, with the combined opposition demanding a discussion on price rise. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan refused to allow a discussion through an adjournment notice, while the Rajya Sabha suspended Question Hour to hold a short discussion.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley, also the leader of the House, told the Rajya Sabha that food prices were under control and there was no need for panic.
The Lok Sabha was adjourned thrice, eventually for the day a little after 2 pm. Jaitley, in his reply to the discussion in the Rajya Sabha, argued food prices, railway fares and diesel price hikes were all a legacy the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had inherited.
The NDA enjoys a significant majority in the Lok Sabha. However, it is unlikely to have a majority in the Rajya Sabha before the next biennial elections scheduled for early 2016, and will need support of some of the opposition parties to ensure passage of important Bills.
In the Rajya Sabha, MPs of all opposition parties – Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and Trinamool Congress – ridiculed the Narendra Modi-led government for its ‘achhe din’ (good days) election slogan.
However, there were chinks in the opposition unity. Leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad said the opposition was dissatisfied with the finance minister’s reply, and was staging a walkout in protest. Most opposition MPs trooped out of the House, barring those from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
The MPs of the Congress’s oldest ally not only remained glued to their seats but party leader Sharad Pawar proceeded to ask food and consumer affairs minister Ram Vilas Paswan a question on the problems faced by sugar mills. CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury also led his MPs out of the House but Pawar ordered his party MPs to continue sitting.
The Congress later explained the episode away as a “communication gap”. Party spokesperson Anand Sharma attributed it to poor floor coordination but it failed to quell speculation that Pawar was possibly exerting his clout and playing difficult. Maharashtra, where the Congress and the NCP are allies, is scheduled for an Assembly election in October-November this year.
In his reply, Jaitley highlighted the steps the 41-day Modi government had taken to contain food inflation, unlike its predecessor United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which allowed onion prices to rise up to Rs 100 a kg in a similar situation. Paswan promised strict action against hoarders and middlemen.
On Yechury’s question whether the Centre would ban futures trading in farm commodities, the finance minister said "the government will keep the suggestion in mind”.
The finance minister also explained the 14.2 per cent hike in rail fares and 6.5 per cent in freight was actually taken by the UPA government on February 11 and the present government only implemented it. Jaitley said the railway minister was faced with a "Hobson's choice" as the railways' financial health was extremely poor.
Jaitley, when questioned by Trinamool MP Derek O'Brien, retorted: "I do not know whether those who handled railways in the past are the original sinners for the current situation.” Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee, and later her party’s Dinesh Trivedi and Mukul Roy held the railway portfolio in the UPA.
Parliamentary affairs minister M Venkaiah Naidu said outside Parliament the government was willing to discuss all issues, including price rise, but under appropriate rules. Naidu said it was unfair on the part of the opposition to hold a month-old government responsible for price rise. Naidu had said in the Lok Sabha the government was ready for a discussion on the issue under Rule 193.
The highlight of opposition protests over price rise in the Lok Sabha was Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s active participation. Gandhi stood in the aisles as other MPs stormed the Well of the House. MPs raised slogans like ‘acche din aayenge, mehangayi badayenge’ (good days will be here, so will inflation).
Mahajan rejected the opposition’s adjournment notices for a discussion, but said she was willing to allow a discussion under Rule 193 that does not entail voting. However, Congress deputy leader Amarinder Singh demanded a discussion just as the Rajya Sabha had done by suspending Question Hour. The House was adjourned for the day at 2.10pm.