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Much is expected of the budget session of Parliament. It is expected to transact a great deal of important business, including the general budget, rail budget and a host of ordinances like the Trai amendment and the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation amendment that will have to be ratified by the House. Standing committees for various ministries are still to be set up, but the discussion of grants for these ministries will be conducted in Parliament. Most of all, this session will set the terms of debate in the 16th Lok Sabha.
It will indicate the extent to which the Narendra Modi government intends to move current political and economic settings. This Lok Sabha has been elected on the basis of a surge for change, and there has been much speculation on how the new government will interpret that message to reshape the agenda. The rail budget and the general budget will provide a sense of how decisively Modi can embrace economic reform, after a decade of the BJP denying its own instincts on FDI in retail, insurance and pensions. There has been talk of bold change, but there have also been signals that, despite its decisive majority, this government’s will can be bent by pressure from allies and other considerations — like the recent rollback of hiked fares in suburban rail. Will the government uphold damaging subsidies on fuel, or give in to reflexive populist measures at a time when the opposition is determined to make rising prices a vocal political issue? To what degree will it reprogramme the UPA’s welfare initiatives?
This Parliament is an entirely different entity from the previous one, in terms of government-opposition dynamics. While the UPA had to struggle mightily with other parties to get any measure passed, now the BJP itself commands a majority of seats. The opposition is a mere assemblage of splinters, with 44 Congress MPs, 37 of the AIADMK, and smaller contingents from other parties. As of now, the speaker is still stonewalling on the question of whether there will be a formal leader of the opposition. This poses challenges to both sides — the opposition will have to fight to be heard on the strength of its ideas, rather than its numerical clout. It will need new skills in challenging and picking apart legislation, leveraging public sentiment and holding a powerful executive to account. The government, meanwhile, will be tested on its democratic instincts, on whether it can remember that several public constituencies and interests are not adequately represented in the House, and whether it can ensure that its strength does not end up cramping space for deliberation and argument.