Both Houses of Parliament witnessed uproar by opposition parties over price rise and increase in rail passenger fares and freight rates on the first day of the Budget session on Monday. The day's proceedings showed how the government intends to be tough in Lok Sabha where it has substantial majority and more flexible in 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 the issue of price rise. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan refused to allow a discussion through an adjournment notice, while Rajya Sabha suspended 'Question Hour' to hold a short duration discussion. Finance minister Arun Jaitley, also the leader of the House, told Rajya Sabha that prices of food items were under control and there was no need for panic.
The Lok Sabha was adjourned thrice, eventually for the day a little after 2pm. Jaitley, in his reply to the discussion in Rajya Sabha, argued that the current situation on food prices as well as railway passenger and freight fare hikes or even the increase in diesel prices was all a "legacy" that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has inherited.
The ruling NDA enjoys a significant majority in the Lok Sabha. However, it is woefully short of the halfway mark in Rajya Sabha. The BJP and NDA are unlikely to have a majority in the Rajya Sabha before the next biennial elections scheduled for early 2016, and would need support of some of the opposition parties to ensure passage of important bills.
In the Rajya Sabha, MPs of all the opposition parties - Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and Trinamool Congress - ridiculed the Narendra Modi-led government over its 'achhe din' (better days) slogan.
However, there were chinks in the opposition unity. Leader of the Opposition 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 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 case of "communication gap". Party spokesperson Anand Sharma attributed it to poor floor coordination but it failed to quell speculation that Pawar, the NCP stalwart, was possibly exerting his clout and playing difficult to get. Mahrashtra, where Congress and NCP are allies, is scheduled for an assembly election in October-November this year.
In his reply, finance minister Jaitley highlighted the proactive steps that the 41-day Modi government has taken to contain food inflation unlike its predecessor United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which allowed onion prices to rise up to Rs 100 a kg in a similar situation. Food minister Paswan promised strict action against hoarders and middlemen.
On CPI (M) leader Yechury's question whether the Centre would ban futures trading on various farm commodities, the finance minister said "the government will keep the suggestion in mind".
The finance minister also explained the 14.2% hike in rail passenger fare and 6.5% in freight charges 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 railways' financial health was extremely bad.
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 Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, and later her party's Dinesh Trivedi and Mukul Roy held the railway portfolio in UPA I and II.
Parliamentary affairs minister M Venkaiah Naidu said outside Parliament that 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 barely a month long government responsible for price rise. Naidu had said in the House that the government was ready for a discussion on the issue under Rule 193.
The highlight of the opposition protests over price rise in Lok Sabha was Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi actively participating in it. Rahul stood in the aisles as other MPs stormed the Well of the House. MPs raised slogans like 'acche din aayenge, mehangayi badayenge' (better days will be here and bring along inflation).
Speaker Sumitra Mahajan rejected opposition moved 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.