A clear division among Congress MPs over the insurance bill that the Narendra Modi government aims to move during the current session of parliament threatens to undermine opposition unity. The bill is one of the focal points of the the Bharatiya Janata Party  government’s reform agenda.

A powerful section of Congress leaders have taken the position that the party cannot afford to be seen taking an anti-reform position. “These leaders insist that it was, after all, the Congress-led government which had first brought the proposal of increasing the foreign investment limit in the insurance sector from 26% to 49%,” said a senior Congress member in the upper house who opposes the bill.

But nearly two dozen of its MPs in Rajya Sabha are busy building a case against the bill, this MP said.  They argue that the bill should be blocked and that the party should shift its focus to fighting for the weaker sections.

“These MPs have not only started mobilising support for their standpoint in the party, they are also planning to raise the issue in the Congress parliamentary party meeting,” said the Congress leader.

Clash of opinions

This clash of opinions in the Congress is weakening the opposition's ability to resist the government's efforts to steamroll its agenda through parliament. While the BJP has a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, it needs the cooperation of the opposition to move bills through the Rajya Sabha.

Last week, the opposition demonstrated that it could effective stall government plans when parties worked in tandem to corner the BJP about Union minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s controversial remarks about who constituted India's real citizens.

But the division in the Congress about the insurance bill could undermine that united front. That became obvious when the select committee of Rajya Sabha finalised its report on the insurance bill on Wednesday. Four opposition parties – the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Janata Dal-United – submitted dissent notes, while Bahujan Samaj Party took the stand that it would move amendments on the floor of the House when the bill would be taken up for consideration and passage.

But the report was supported by the Congress, in addition to the BJP and its allies.

An old debate
For the Congress, this debate between its left-of-the-centre wing and its right-wing proponents is an old one. The Congress’ economic right-wing has been in the driver's seat for more than two decades. But since the party left the treasury benches, the left-wingers became much more vocal – and often they prevail upon the party’s right-wing.

The Congress’ dilemma became apparent in the very first week of the winter session. Even though the Congress supported the labour law bill, party MP Madhusudan Mistry differed, saying the legislation would go against the interests of the workers. The bill sought to exempt filing of returns and maintenance of records for units employing up to 40 workers as against 19 earlier.

The insurance bill, which is being opposed tooth and nail by the non-Congress opposition parties, is even more crucial. The position that the Congress takes on the floor of the House on this legislation is likely to go much beyond resolving the party’s long-standing dilemma: it may simply make or mar opposition unity.