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Cong in bill-block mode

- Party unwilling to budge, eyes chance to gain allies

New Delhi, Aug. 5: The Congress today appeared firm about sticking to its demand to send the insurance bill to a select committee, eyeing in such a position long-term gains beyond the issue at hand.

For, this strategy gives the Congress a chance to break out of its isolation and bond with smaller Opposition parties, which are expected to play key roles in future battles against the BJP inside and outside Parliament.

To avert the bill being delayed, the government has invited the Congress to suggest amendments, signalling its readiness to accept them. But the Congress cannot afford to break ranks with the eight other parties that signed the letter asking the Rajya Sabha chairperson for a select committee.

So, it would rather stomach the charge of “political opportunism” by temporarily blocking a bill that was introduced by a Congress-led government six years ago.

After its humiliating general election defeat, the Congress had almost turned an outcast in the Lok Sabha. Reports have said some of the smaller Opposition parties refused to sit beside it in the House, holding up the finalisation of a formal seating arrangement.

On several issues, Congress House leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s desperate pleas for support had evoked snubs from these parties, compelling the Congress to restrict its aggression to the Rajya Sabha.

In these circumstances, the insurance bill has come as a godsend to the Congress. It has forced even a party like Trinamul, competing bitterly with the Congress for pole position among the Lok Sabha Opposition, to adopt a common strategy.

Besides, it has given the Congress a sniff at reviving its ties with secular friends such as the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, the communist twins, DMK, Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, all signatories to the select committee demand.

Congress leaders privately said that even if their party later changed its stand after the select committee recommendations, helping the government pass the bill, there was no question of betraying the secular friends by supporting the bill at this stage.

“We are not obliged to help this hostile government by annoying our allies,” a senior Congress leader said.

Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress’s leader in the Rajya Sabha, dropped similar hints.

“The government is saying, ‘Suggest amendments’. (But) we are not alone. What about the other parties? We will act in consultation with them as we had together signed the letter to the Rajya Sabha chairman,” he said.

“Why is the BJP so desperate? If they didn’t have any concern about the legislation for the past six years, why not wait two months more?”

Azad’s deputy Anand Sharma, who is dealing with the government on the insurance bill, gave the same answer when asked why the Congress was not moving amendments.

“There are other parties too; it’s not a private affair. Changes can happen only in the select committee,” Sharma said.

“Parliamentary procedures cannot be curtailed. We’ll take a view only after the select committee examines the amendments brought by this government. The heavens will not fall in two months.”

Sharma virtually ruled out a breakthrough at the all-party meeting the government has called tomorrow — after one failed yesterday.

“The government’s language is disrespectful and smacks of arrogance. They say we have given them three options as if we approached them with a petition,” he said.

“They should show some humility in dealing with the Opposition. We too can speak the same language.”

An angry Sharma went on: “They are saying the Congress is working against the national interest. Those who blocked bills for six years should not lecture us on the national interest.

“Throughout the career of UPA II and major portions of UPA I, the BJP didn’t allow key legislations much to the detriment of the national interest. Arun Jaitley should recall how he forced the Lokpal bill passed by the Lok Sabha to be sent to the select committee in the Rajya Sabha. A change of seats (from the Opposition to the Treasury benches) should not lead to a complete loss of memory.”

Asked if the Congress was seeking revenge, Sharma said: “Sometimes they (the BJP) need to be reminded where they stood. They should remember their words and deeds.”

He added: “Today they take credit (that) Parliament is functioning more. It is because of us. If we were to follow their path, it would have been a different story. We are not confrontationist; we are only asking for a select committee which will give its report in a few weeks.”