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A tale of two budget sessions
August, 08th 2009

Five years, two budgets and the difference had to be seen to be believed. When, on Friday, Speaker Meira Kumar delivered the valedictory address, signalling the conclusion of the first budget session of the 15th Lok Sabha, she was justly proud. The House sat for 162 hours over 26 days, putting in 31 extra hours to ensure, among other important businesses, the passage of the Railway and general budgets.

The comparative statistics for the session five years ago: 92 hours over 24 days with the Bharatiya Janata Party boycotting the Railway budget as well as the passage of the Finance Bill. The first budget session of the 15th Lok Sabha lost 23 hours and 34 minutes to interruptions and forced adjournments. The corresponding figure for the first budget session of the 14th Lok Sabha was 47 hours.

But the 2004 figure of 47 lost hours does not tell the full story. That budget session was marked by disorder of a kind not seen before, with the newly defeated BJP continuously stalling the House over one or another issue. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was at the receiving end of this ire, described his situation as abnormal. Speaking at the inauguration of the JRD centenary celebrations on August 24, 2004, he said: Never in the history of any government, the first 100 days have been characterised by the daily turmoil that we witness in Parliament these days.

Repeated adjournments

The 2004 budget session started with the BJP forcing repeated adjournments on the alleged inclusion of tainted Ministers in the Cabinet. The party boycotted the Railway budget presented by Lalu Prasad, causing it be passed without a discussion. The principal Opposition refused to participate in the various parliamentary committees, relenting to rejoin only in response to repeated entreaties by Speaker Somnath Chatterjee. The BJP disrupted the discussion on the budget, and finally boycotted the entire parliamentary proceedings.

By contrast, the BJP was on its best behaviour in the 2009 budget session. Party sources said the change in tactic owed to the realisation that continuous bad behaviour had dented its image, and that unending slogan-shouting and walkouts served no purpose other than highlighting the partys own deficiencies. The strategy appears to have paid off. The BJP, led by deputy leader Sushma Swaraj in the Lok Sabha, and Arun Jaitley in the Rajya Sabha, cornered the government repeatedly and effectively. In the Upper House, Mr. Jaitley led the charge against the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill, 2009, resulting in its hasty withdrawal by Law Minister Veerappa Moily. In the Lower House, Ms. Swaraj, objecting to the absence of the Ministers for Commerce, ensured that the Rubber (Amendment) Bill, 2009 was rescheduled.

Just how much things changed was revealed by Ms. Swaraj herself at a press briefing. Journalists pointed out that there were precedents to Bills being piloted in the absence of the Ministers concerned. Her reply: That obviously happened with a different Opposition. This Opposition is different. It means business.

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