Setting the stage for a stormy Budget session of Parliament, 17 Opposition parties announced Thursday that they would boycott President Ram Nath Kovind’s customary address to the joint sitting of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Friday. They said this would be an expression of solidarity with farmer unions who have been protesting at Delhi’s borders for over two months, demanding the repeal of new agriculture laws.
Responding to the announcement, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Pralhad Joshi said: “I appeal to leaders of all parties not to boycott the President’s address. The government is ready to discuss all issues threadbare, and as much time as is required will be set aside when the Business Advisory Committees of both Houses meet.”
The Economic Survey is to be tabled Friday, and the Union Budget will be presented Monday. The monsoon session too had ended on a bitter note in September with chaotic scenes in Rajya Sabha over the passage of the agriculture laws.
Eight Opposition MPs were suspended from Rajya Sabha for “unruly behaviour” and the Opposition had stayed away from the two Houses on the last day. Four months later, the battle lines seem to have hardened.
In a joint statement, leaders of 16 Opposition parties – the AAP issued a separate statement – said: “Lakhs of farmers have been agitating at the gates of the national capital of Delhi, braving biting cold and heavy rain for the last 64 days for their rights and justice. Over 155 farmers have lost their lives. The Government remains unmoved and has responded with water cannons, tear gas and lathi charges. Every effort has been made to discredit a legitimate mass movement through a government-sponsored disinformation campaign.”
They said the protest and the agitation have been largely peaceful. “Unfortunately, there were few acts of violence on January 26 in the national capital of Delhi which was condemned universally and unequivocally. We also express our sadness over the injuries sustained by Delhi Police personnel while handling the difficult situation. But we believe that an impartial investigation will reveal the Central Government’s nefarious role in orchestrating those events,” the leaders said.
The signatories to the joint statement are Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress deputy leader in Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma, NCP’s Sharad Pawar and Supriya Sule, National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah, DMK’s T R Baalu and Tiruchi Siva, Trinamool Congress’s Derek O Brien and Sudip Bandyopadhyay, Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut, SP’s Ram Gopal Yadav, RJD’s Manoj Jha, CPM’s Elamaram Kareem, CPI’s Binoy Viswam, RSP’s N K Premachandran, PDP’s Nazir Ahmad Laway, MDMK’s Vaiko, IUML’s P K Kunhalikutty, AIUDF’s Badruddin Ajmal and Kerala Congress (M)’s Thomas Chazhikadan.
Sources said Congress president Sonia Gandhi chaired a meeting of the party’s Parliamentary strategy group where it was decided that they should reach out to other Opposition parties to take a common view on boycotting the President’s address.
Gandhi, sources said, spoke to Pawar and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. Azad, on the other hand, spoke to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, DMK chief M K Stalin, RJD chief Tejashwi Yadav and Left leaders Sitaram Yechury and D Raja. Sharma also got in touch with floor leaders of several parties.
The BJP hit back after the Opposition announcement, saying it will not give in to pressure to repeal the laws.
Accusing the Opposition parties of rejecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiatives taken in national interest, BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia said: “The people of this country are also boycotting the Opposition because these parties do not have faith in the Constitution, Parliament, judiciary or in the Prime Minister or in the Army or police.”
Pointing out that the Opposition had issues with “other initiatives like the abrogation of Article 370, triple talaq, CAA,” Bhatia said: “If the Opposition parties think that they can put pressure on the Prime Minister to take back the laws, I would like to tell them 0+0+0+0, and if you keep adding zero, the sum will be zero only. The government will bow only before the people. These parties, which are corrupt and dynastic, do not have the ability to put pressure on this government.”
He said most parties including the Congress, AAP, NCP and SAD had backed measures in the three farm Bills.
The Opposition leaders said the three agriculture laws were an assault on the rights of the States and violate the federal spirit of the Constitution. “The very constitutional validity of these laws remain in question. The Prime Minister and BJP government remain arrogant, adamant and undemocratic in their response. Shocked by this insensitivity of the Government, we… reaffirming the collective demand for the repeal of the anti-farmers laws and in solidarity with the Indian farmers, have decided to boycott the President’s Address,” they said.
While the BSP and TDP were not part of the joint statement, the AAP, which has been at loggerheads with the Congress especially in Punjab, issued a separate statement.
“The Aam Aadmi Party had been opposing these anti-farmer laws from the very first day and our protest will continue. This is why the Aam Aadmi Party has decided to boycott the President’s address tomorrow at Parliament. Aam Aadmi Party Lok Sabha MP Bhagwant Mann and all the three Rajya Sabha MPs will not attend the President’s address tomorrow,” AAP leader Sanjay Singh said in a statement.
Incidentally, the JD (S) too is not part of the statement. In the past, the JD (S) had been a key member of the Opposition grouping. The absence of the JD (S) comes at a time when the party has joined hands with the BJP in Karnataka to get its leader elected as chairman of the legislative council.
The Budget session will begin Friday with President Kovind addressing members of both the Houses seated in three different locations for the first time in line with Covid protocols.
Under arrangements made before the Opposition declaration of the boycott, 144 MPs including ministers, chairpersons of committees of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, leaders of different parties and groups in both Houses will be seated in the Central Hall. The remaining members will be seated in chambers of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
The Budget session will be in two parts. Parliament will go into recess on February 15. It will reconvene on March 8 and the session will conclude on April 8.
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