Olive branch or new leaf

Faced with the prospect of crucial legislations getting stuck due to rising opposition strength, Narendra Modi invited arch enemies Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh for tea. Is this the beginning of Modi’s brand of consensus politics? Or is it just a temporary ploy to out-wit the opposition?

The most significant of political turns can take place after a simple phone call. Those who were harbouring doubts about it because such critical calls had not been put through for a long time, were provided proof by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, himself. He has made the most unexpected of calls to the leader of the Congress party, Ms Sonia Gandhi, who he had treated with disdain all through, inviting her and his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, over for tea to discuss a crucial legislation on economic reforms.

The fact that he did so 18 months after becoming the Prime Minister, is an indication of a change in approach towards the opposition that he has finally decided to adopt. More so, with the party that he had reduced to a meagre 44 seats in the general elections with his campaign point of ‘rid India of the Congress’. Clearly, Modi is unlike other politicians who would fight bitterly against their adversaries but, once in power, maintain some kind of a friendly approach towards them. All through Modi chose to not to have anything to do with those whom he, obviously, considered enemies.

That attitude hardened after he won a majority, the first for any party in 30 years, in parliament. He did not think it necessary to maintain any semblance of a relationship with his opponents, not even as an essential part of co-existence in a democracy where no one is a permanent enemy or, for that matter, a friend. It could be called arrogance of power, more than immaturity, for somebody like him to believe that he had enough numbers on his side to simply ignore the opposition.

But, he did not realise that the numbers that his government needs to get crucial legislation passed required the help of the opposition in the upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP and its allies were in a minority. That realisation perhaps dawned after the defeat his party faced in the eastern state of Bihar preceded earlier by Delhi state elections. What this meant was that his party would not be able to get partymen elected to the upper house from these states. The election results also showed that his government had acquired a negative perception among the people as well as industry that had backed him to the hilt for ‘the good days would be here’ theme during the election campaign.

To correct that impression, it was clear that the BJP-led government needed to urgently get the easiest of legislations passed in parliament. It is also not without significance that the industry’s interactions with the Congress party - more particularly its vice president Rahul Gandhi - should have focussed on critical legislation. Passing of some bills have become critical to continue the process of economic reforms that had been stalled during the tenure of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government because the BJP did not cooperate. The most critical of these legislations is the Goods and Services Tax Bill better known as the GST Bill.

The bill essentially seeks to replace a plethora of tax laws in the states as well as the country with a simple national value added tax that would improve efficiency in the system, curb corruption and ensure more revenue in the wake of better compliance. The legislation requires an amendment to the constitution for which the Modi government cannot do without the support of the Congress and other opposition parties. What is more interesting is that Manmohan Singh, the man whom Modi campaigned against and pilloried and called

the ‘silent PM’, ultimately played a balancing role in pointing out to the latter that he needs to speak to the Congress party president if he wanted to initiate a consensus.

Without doubt, it must have taken a lot of hard thinking on the part of the Prime Minister to speak to Sonia Gandhi who had once described him as the ‘merchant of death’ after the Gujarat pogrom. But, then political expediency takes precedence over everything else, particularly when the government has to have its way. The Congress’ approach to the chat over tea is a different ball game altogether. It has to protect its own legislation and, cannot afford to create even an iota of impression that it is working against national interest by thwarting the economic reforms process. It is in this context that there are bound to be some negotiations between the two sides over various aspects of the taxation bill. Both sides have their arguments for the changes in the legislation but it appears that the viewpoint of Dr Manmohan Singh will be the ultimate deciding factor.

The importance of this chat over tea will certainly change the political equations. As much as Modi was forced to change his approach, the Congress, too, would have to change its political strategy. It is easy to oppose tooth and nail a government and gain from this obstinacy, as the Congress has in the current situation. But, it is quite a different ball game to keep up the pressure on the government of the day to implement economic reforms that the Congress had conceived and readied. That is the gauntlet that the Congress leadership would have to pick up. This is where the leadership of Rahul Gandhi would be, yet again, tested.

But, it is not going to be easy for the Prime Minister to morph into a consensus leader from being a confrontationist. The opposition was quite surprised by his path-breaking speech in parliament before he became a hospitable host to the Congress leaders wherein he spoke about ‘we’ rather  than ‘you and us’. Even if it is pure play politics, it is only a matter of time before we know whether his effort was a genuine effort at practising something the former prime minister A B Vajpayee had so famously indulged in.

The politics of consensus, truly, in the interest of the nation.

Tailpiece 

A lot of noise has been made over the way the pitch turned in the third cricket test between India and South Africa at Nagpur. Team India director and former test player Ravi Shastri has come out rather strongly against the criticism, particularly from the Australian commentators. It is his language that is rather surprising. ‘You have to stop cribbing and get on with the job at hand,’ was just one sentence that was attributed to him in an interview.

He has gone on to comment about how the pitch at Perth was prepared recently for the Australia- New Zealand test where 1,672 runs were scored. His comments, aimed at the Australians, seem to have come out of angst. Not clear if that is something which has been carried over since the time he ensured an India-

Australia match led to a tie. But, the most interesting story on cricket has come from the master batsman, Sachin Tendulkar.

The greatest batsman and record holder of many a century has spoken from his heart in an interview to a newspaper. Exactly two years to the month after retirement, Tendulkar has shifted gear popularising the game in the United States and travelling here and there ‘on short trips’, as he puts it. It has given him a lot of time to spend with his mother and other members of his family. He has even cooked for his family.

The 42-year-old has, however, tugged the hearts of many with his comment about how his children have never complained about his absence from home for long spells during his cricket career. But now that he is free to spend time with them, his teenage children have grown up to have their own schedules. Never mind if you are the greatest cricketer, the pleasures of fatherhood will always remain a mixed bag.

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]

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