Insurance Bill logjam: A sad commentary on Indian politics
By: Rajeev Sharma
A six-year-old boy curiously named Curious asks his father the meaning of politics.
The wise man comes up with a teaser. “Let me put the whole thing called ‘politics’ in proper context, my boy. I am the sole breadwinner of the family. So, call me Capitalism. Your mom is the sole administrator of the money I bring in. Call her the Government. We both take care of your needs. Call yourself the People. The maid is the Working Class. And call your one-year-old brother the Future. Mull it over tonight and tell me what you make of it at the breakfast table tomorrow.”
Perplexed, Curious retires for the day but is unable to sleep as his little brother is crying with no one to look after him. He finds out that his little brother’s diaper is wet. He goes to his parents’ room to find his mother sleeping like a log and his father missing. Then he goes to the maid’s room which is locked. Instead of disturbing the entire household by knocking the door, he decides to peer inside through the keyhole and sees his father in bed with the maid. He gets back to his room, changes his little brother’s diaper himself and goes to sleep.
Next morning, the father asks the boy if he had finally understood what politics means.
The boy replies thus: “It’s simple. While Capitalism is screwing the Working Class, the Government is sound asleep, the Future is in deep shit and the People are left to fend for themselves.”
This may be an old joke being bandied about in power circles across the globe for years, but it aptly describes Indian politics. Nothing sums up this state of affairs in Indian politics than the logjam over the insurance bill, the new Indian government’s first major economic reform that promises FDI worth billions of dollars.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now getting from the opposition parties, what they gave to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government over the last six years: Blockade of the insurance bill.
The strange thing is that it was the UPA government which had first moved the insurance bill way back in 2008 but the BJP, which was the main opposition party then, stymied it. Now in a reversal of roles it is the BJP government which is pushing the insurance bill and the Congress, the biggest opposition party albeit with just 44 members in a house of 543, is blocking it.
The bill is aimed at raising the foreign participation cap in an insurance venture from 26 percent to 49 percent and simplifying the highly over-regulated sector. Global insurance majors are eyeing the vast Indian market as India is the world’s 10th biggest life insurance market and not even four per cent of Indians have insurance currently.
The BJP is facing the problem of numbers in the bicameral Parliament. While the ruling party has the required numbers in the Lok Sabha, the arithmetic is woeful in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house). The BJP and allies have just about 60 members in the 250-member Rajya Sabha, way short of the half-way mark for ensuring the bill’s passage. The Congress alone has 69 members in the Rajya Sabha.
The Congress is now opposing the insurance bill on the ground that the bill in its present format has 11 amendments, two of these substantive. Therefore, the Congress wants the bill to be referred to the Select Committee of Parliament, a well-known tactic of jettisoning the legislation which BJP itself had employed for this bill when it was in the opposition.
Senior Congress leader and former Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma on Tuesday accused the government of being in a tearing hurry to get the insurance bill passed in this very session of Parliament which lasts for one more week.
“Why are they in desperate hurry? They could happily wait for six years, now they can’t give few weeks to the Select Committee. The government must explain why they are in great hurry. Heavens will not open up. No earth shaking developments took place. Arun Jaitley ji should remember his own words and his party’s attitude. We are not paying back in the same coin but they don’t have any patience and they expected us to be patient for six years which we were,” Sharma said at a press conference.
The government and the opposition are on a warpath on the insurance bill. Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has declared that the BJP government is going to bring the bill for discussion and passage in this very session of Parliament, suggesting that the government is prepared for a showdown over the issue.
The government can very well get the bill passed anytime it wants but for that it will have to use a rarely used political route — that of convening a joint session of Parliament and deploy its massive majority in the Lok Sabha to push through the legislation. The last time this route was used by a central government was way back in 2002 when the then premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee had convened a joint session of parliament to enact the controversial Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA).
But if the Modi government takes this route eventually it would mean completely burning the bridges with the entire opposition, not just the Congress. The Left parties are opposed tooth and nail to the insurance bill arguing that foreign involvement in the insurance sector will give them control over domestic savings and would severely harm the national interest.
Who said consumer is the king? Isn’t the joke about the young boy’s lesson in politics relevant here?
The writer is a New Delhi-based independent journalist and a political commentator who tweets @Kishkindha.