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Advantage regional parties

Wednesday, April 11, 2018
By Arati Jerath

The game is on to elect a non-BJP, non-Congress leader as the next deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha. The term of incumbent P J Kurien of the Congress ended with the close of the budget session of Parliament.

The numbers in the Rajya Sabha are stacked to give regional parties an advantage. Even if the BJP manages to bulldoze its regional allies and one-member parties, it can rustle up only 118 votes. To win, it needs 123 votes.

The BJP has lost out because of the exit of the TDP from the NDA. The TDP took away six votes from the NDA fold.

Victory will be determined by a group of 21 MPs belonging to the TDP, TRS and BJD. These parties have declared themselves equidistant from the BJP and the Congress. This means that they are unlikely to vote for either a BJP candidate or a Congress candidate.

Regional opposition parties are banking on this to push through a non-BJP, non-Congress deputy chairperson. They feel that if they can choose a non controversial person acceptable to these three parties, they can win the position. Traditionally, the post of deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha has belonged to either the ruling party or the main opposition. But neither the BJP nor the Congress have enough numbers in the Upper House to have their way.

Although the deputy chairperson doesn’t exercise much power, a victory for regional parties will add to the clout smaller parties are enjoying at a time when the BJP seems to have started declining and the Congress shows little sign of revival. It will certainly be seen as a sign of what could happen in 2019 when neither of the two national parties are likely to hit the majority mark in the Lok Sabha election.

The election of the deputy chairperson will be the first item on the agenda of the Rajya Sabha when Parliament reconvenes for the monsoon session.

Jaitley’s absence felt
The impact of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s absence was evident in the chaotic scenes that broke out in the Rajya Sabha in the final week of the budget session.
Jaitley is the leader of the Upper House and is on leave awaiting a kidney transplant.

Although the Rajya Sabha did barely any work for most of the budget session, the daily adjournment was done in a civilised manner with all-round agreement. According to opposition leaders, it was Jaitley who coordinated floor management to avoid ugly scenes and confrontations of the kind that rocked the Lok Sabha.

But in the final week of the budget session when Jaitley was on leave, the situation in the Rajya Sabha went out of hand on several occasions. Matters reached a peak last Thursday when the House was adjourned 11 times in the face of mounting hostility from the TDP.

Opposition leaders say that Jaitley’s political management skills have not been properly appreciated by his party. But the government will soon realise his utility in the coming weeks as the face-off with the opposition increases.

According to them, Jaitley brings three things to the table for the government. One is that he always maintains a back channel with opposition leaders. The second is his ability to avoid confrontation by pouring oil over troubled waters. The third is his extensive knowledge of rules of parliamentary procedures because of his experience as a four-term MP and his expertise as a lawyer.

Opposition leaders believe that the government will be severely handicapped in the weeks to come and in the next session unless Jaitley is back in action by then.

Division in ranks
The impeachment motion against Chief Justice of India Dipak Mishra was left dangling as the budget session adjourned sine die without a decision. One of the chief reasons for the Congress party’s inability to move the motion was the division in its own ranks.

Apparently, two of its legal eagles, P Chidambaram and Abhishekh Singhvi, were reluctant to sign the motion. Congress  circles say both were advised by their lawyers to stay out of this debate because they are facing cases in the Supreme Court.

Seeing the division within the Congress, most opposition parties also refused to sign. Two that did, SP and DMK, withdrew from the motion later. The Congress was left isolated except for the NCP which was the only party backing the move. In fact, the Congress enlisted the services of Sharad Pawar to persuade regional parties to come on board. Pawar has an excellent rapport with regional satraps across the political spectrum. But even he failed to persuade regional parties in the face of the confusion within the Congress.

Slow and tangled process
The Modi government got an earful on GST from foreign diplomats posted in New Delhi. At a recent meeting in the ministry of external affairs, the officer who handles GST returns and refunds on behalf of diplomatic missions based in the Capital city was taken aback by the blasting he received from diplomats, particularly the Europeans.

All of them complained about the slow and tangled processes of filing returns and receiving refunds that are due to diplomats. Foreign diplomats posted in India do not pay local taxes on goods they purchase here. The earlier VAT system was simple. They just presented their card at the store and VAT, sales tax etc., was waived off on the spot.

After GST was introduced, the process has become very complicated. They cannot get an on-the-spot refund of taxes. They have to file returns and apply for a refund. But GST officials are so slow and confused about the system themselves that refunds are being inordinately delayed.

In fact, a diplomat from Sudan said his mission had US $ 70,000 pending in refunds for more than a year. The Europeans were blunt in their comments as they blasted the convoluted rules and regulations and the delays in getting refunds. The government needs to rethink its GST processes, they said.

The MEA official kept a poker face and said he would convey their problems to ``higher ups’’.

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