The Insurance Amendment Bill which was supposed to be used by the Congress as tackling game, tiring out the BJP, and ultimately let the Bill be passed, has ended in tying the main opposition party in more knots than it had anticipated.
A three-way vertical division has emerged within the party. There is the pro-Bill lobby represented by the pro-reform heavyweights like former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former finance minister P.Chidambaram. The argument goes that Congress should not oppose its own bill, and it is the BJP in the dock because it is bringing in a bill which it had opposed when in opposition. And this is an opportunity for the Congress to assert its authorship of the bill.
There is the middle-of-the-road lobby which wants to dribble and tackle before letting the BJP score the goal. They want to take it into extra-time as it were by insisting on referring the Bill to a House select committee to sort out the FD/FII issue which is part of the new bill. This lobby is however clear that there are on differences with the BJP in principle and it is the details that need to be worked out.
Then there is the radical third lobby, which includes none other than party president Sonia Gandhi, who feel that it is time to disown the pro-reform bill because it was the overtly market-friendly policies which hurt the party in the summer’s Lok Sabha elections and brought down the tally from a comfortable 206 down to 44. Change your colours in the wake of the electoral debacle and oppose the bill tooth and claw is the mantra of this new old guard in the party.
The Congress finds itself in an unenviable position of unable to make up its mind.
There is also the position that Congress should neither support not oppose but abstain when it comes to voting in Rajya Sabha.
Meanwhile, the BJP is playing a tantalising game. At the meeting of major opposition parties, the BJP leaders including finance minister Arun Jaitley and parliamentary affairs minister M.Venkaiah Naidu were willing to listen to the Congress objections, take on board all its concerns, and even modify the phraseology of the Bill over the FDI/FII distinction. The Congress was given two days to come back with its demands.
The BJP’s desire to forge consensus is quite intriguing unless it acknowledges, which it is refusing to do at the moment, that it does not have the numbers and its attempts to win over some of the smaller parties, including the AIADMK and the BSP, may not add up to push the bill through.
The BJP is really trying desperately to either get the tacit support of the Congress or at least neutralise its opposition. That is, BJP would be happy if the Congress abstains as will be the case with some of the other parties.
Government sources here said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was hell-bent on Parliament pass the controversial insurance bill in the current session as he wants to showcase it as India's top priority to economic reforms in his summit with the US President Barrack Obama towards September end.
If the Opposition gangs up to block the bill in the Rajya Sabha where the government is in a minority, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has dropped a broad hint that Modi will go in for a joint session to override the logjam and get the bill passed, using the huge majority he has in the Lok Sabha. He suspects the Congress was deliberately blocking the bill to prevent him get credit of putting economy back on rails.
An angry Jaitley is reported to have dropped this hint when the opposition members refused to help to evolve a consensus. He angrily told the Congress leaders that they should either cooperate in getting the Bill passed or reject it outright and not play politics on the issue of economic reforms.
Congress leader Anand Sharma reportedly snapped back at him, taunting that Modi will have to then call joint session for every legislation and pointing out that it were Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj as leaders of Opposition in the two Houses who had blocked the Bill after giving assurance that the BJP is for 49 per cent FDI in insurance sector. The Bill is hanging on the Rajya Sabha agenda for the last six years because of the BJP, Sharma is said to have remarked.
The government is handicapped in the Rajya Sabha because it can muster only 68 members to support the bill while those opposing are 133, including 69 of Congress, in the 245-member House.
While BJP has only 42 members, its allies TDP has 6, Shiv Sena and SAD 3 each and RPI (Athawale) one member. Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) having seven and six members respectively have extended support to the Bill, but that makes up only 65.
Ranged against them are Congress (69), BSP (14), Trinamul and JD(U) 12 each, CPI-M 9, CPI 2, DMK 4 and RJD 1.
AIADMK that has 11 members has not opened its cards, while there are 10 nominated members, nine independents and others in small parties that together account for 12. Even if all these members back the government, it will be 110, which is still short of the Bills' opponents total of 133.