PM in Parliament: 85 minutes of sound and fury and not much else

On unemployment, price rise, inquiry into a monstrous scam, economic blockade of states, and communal harmony, his silence was telling

Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke for almost three hours in Parliament on two days of the Budget Session. In the Rajya Sabha, he spoke for 85 minutes. How many times was he interrupted? Not even once! In contrast, the Leader of the Opposition, Mallikarjun Kharge, spoke for 88 minutes, and he was “interrupted” by the honourable custodian of the House an unprecedented 32 times (yes, I was a few seats away and counting). Digvijay Singh spoke for 33 minutes and he was interrupted seven times. I spoke for 18 minutes, and was interrupted by the Chair three times.

In the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha the Prime Minister did not even touch on any of these five issues: Unemployment, price rise, inquiry into a monstrous scam, economic blockade of states, and communal harmony.

A global survey carried out by Ipsos — ‘What Worries the World’ — for the month of January 2023 highlighted that unemployment is the topmost worry for Indians.

As per CMIE data, the unemployment rate in December 2022 stood at 8.30 per cent, the highest in 16 months. This means that almost four crore Indians are without a job. The state with the highest unemployment rate is Haryana at 37 per cent. Pan-India, the urban unemployment rate stands at 10 per cent. And for all the hollow talk about women’s empowerment, over two crore women quit the workforce between 2017 and 2022.

Even though the NITI Aayog predicts that India’s unorganised gig economy will expand by 200 per cent (from the current 77 lakh workers to 235 lakh workers), the Union government is yet to take action on their premier think tanks’ recommendation of providing these workers with social security benefits like paid leave, accident insurance, support during irregularity of work, and pension plans.

Three hours on the floor of Parliament and not a sentence about price rise. Fuel prices. LPG cylinders. Retail inflation at a three-month high, beyond the threshold of the RBI limit. Sharp rise in essentials like spices, cereals, milk, and eggs. Two-wheeler sales, which many consider to be one of the practical indicators for measuring the health of the economy, have witnessed the lowest sales in a decade.

We did not hear a word in either House from the PM on the monstrous scam. During my intervention in Rajya Sabha, I flagged the preamble of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), which states that it is tasked with three principal objectives: (i) To protect the interests of investors in securities; (ii) to promote the development of the securities market; and (iii) to regulate the securities market. Dozens of MPs in the Opposition made the argument that all this affects crores of Indians who have invested their life savings into institutions like LIC and SBI. Mum’s the word.

Far removed from the billion-dollar racketeering, there is the story of the 70-tonne dome of the under-construction Meghalaya Legislative Assembly building that collapsed last year. Guess who was constructing the dome? Uttar Pradesh Rajkiya Nirman Nigam Ltd. Mega, midi or mini scams — the gentleman who gives the Opposition homilies on corruption decided to brazen it out in both Houses.

The speeches by the Prime Minister in both Houses lasted 173 minutes. He dodged responding to serious concerns raised about the economic blockade of states. The man who was once a chief minister for twelve years, heads a Union government that is now squeezing non-BJP-run states of funds. For the MGNREGA alone, the Union government owes states over Rs 10,000 crore. Cess and surcharge as a part of gross Union tax revenues have now gone up from 10 per cent in 2012 to 20 per cent in 2023. Cess, as is common knowledge, is not shared with the states.

The President’s address to both Houses of Parliament had a powerful sentence: “A Bharat whose diversity is even more vivid and whose unity becomes even more unshakeable.” The PM, in both his speeches, very conveniently ignored any reference to multiple incidents taking place that contravened the essence of this sentence and Article 25 of the Constitution: The right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion.

What no political party – not the Trinamool Congress, DMK or Samajwadi Party or Congress or AAP or Shiv Sena or CPM – could do, one YRF film did. Words written nearly 75 years ago by B R Ambedkar and his team had now been turned into movie magic by film director Siddharth Anand and India’s biggest global ambassadors. On the floor of the Rajya Sabha we praised the blockbuster that celebrated India’s diversity. Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and John Abraham had shown this government and its cronies the power of incorporating into popular culture, serious messaging about true patriotism, unity in diversity and constitutional values. The Prime Minister chose to look away.

[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Friday, February 17, 2023]