Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s controversial decision to suspend  25 Congress members of Parliament for five days for “grave disorder”  has sharpened the battle lines between the Modi government and the opposition.  If the ruling alliance  had hoped this move would isolate the Congress, it was proved wrong when it ended up uniting the opposition.

Angry and upset with the Speaker’s decision over what it maintains is its legitimate right to protest,  nine opposition parties have decided to boycott Lok Sabha for five days in solidarity with the Congress. The political parties which have extended support to the Congress include the Trinamool Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, Janata Dal (U),  the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, Left parties, Revolutionary Socialist Party, Muslim League  and the Aam Aadmi Party.

The Trinamool’s decision to join the boycott came as a surprise as its members had, so far, refrained from joining the  Congress protests in the House as it had softened its stand towards the ruling alliance after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi warmed up to each other.

Parliament has failed to transact any business in the ongoing monsoon session as Congress members held up proceedings to demand the resignation of  external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Madhya Pradesh and  Rajasthan chief ministers Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje respectively.

Uniting the opposition

The ruling alliance had been banking on the divide in the opposition ranks, especially since the Trinamool Congress and the Samajwadi Party have not been too enthusiastic about the Congress party’s continuing  protests. This was evident as the Speaker chose to suspend the placard-waving Congress MPs although members belonging to the RJD and JD (U) as well as the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi were also carrying placards to press their respective demands for the publication of the caste census data and a separate High Court in Telangana.

However, the strategy backfired as it has resulted in further confrontation between the treasury and the opposition. Fence sitting opposition parties have now decided to stand by the Congress not because they agree with its demands but because they believe this will set a dangerous precedent and could  also be used against them in the future.

“This is a completely wrong move … the Bharatiya Janata Party is using the Gujarat model of  conducting legislative business,” remarked Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who has been in a combative mood as evident from her hard hitting speech to party MPs on Monday morning, was quick to denounce the  Speaker’s decision. “This is a black day for democracy, “ she told the NDTV, following the suspension of Congress MPs.

The Speaker’s move is bound to find an echo in the Rajya Sabha where the ruling alliance is outnumbered by the opposition. Although the Upper House has already been wracked by disruptions over the past two weeks but the confrontation on Tuesday promises to be a bitter one.

The suspensions came shortly after the all-party meeting, called by the ruling alliance to break the parliamentary logjam, failed to yield any concrete result.  The government stuck to its stand that the Congress demand for the resignation of three senior BJP leaders was not acceptable. However, it reiterated its offer to debate all issues relating to the Lalit Modi controversy and the Vyapam scandal.

While the Congress made it clear at the very outset of the meeting that it would not go back on its demand, the response of the other opposition parties, notably the Samajwadi Party and the Trinamool Congress, was, at best, lukewarm. Emboldened by these divisions in the opposition ranks, the government signaled its readiness  to the Speaker on the suspension order. But the whole scene changed after Mahajan’s announcement.

'Deafening silence'

On the warpath since the commencement of the ongoing session, the Congress party’s unrelenting position was enunciated by party president in her customary speech to party MPs on Monday morning where she launched a stringent attack against Prime Minister Modi over his “deafening silence” on the scandals involving top BJP leaders.

"The Prime Minister is conspicuous by his deafening silence on the blatant transgressions by his External Affairs Minister and two Chief Ministers,"  she said, adding that “the champion of 'mann ki baat' appears to have retreated into a maun vrat."

This is not the first time that Sonia Gandhi has slammed Modi personally but her attack this time was far more ferocious.  She also made it abundantly clear that the Congress will not retreat on its demand for the resignation of three BJP leaders and reminded the BJP about its conduct in parliament when it occupied the opposition benches.

"The BJP is the author of "resign now, debate later" principle which it had used on at least five occasions during the UPA rule. We are only following it," she stressed. “We are raising very important issues with strong evidence, but the government is unwilling to take action in this regard."

On its part, government sources maintained  the Speaker was well within her rights to suspend protesting MPs for disrupting proceedings. They were also quick to point out that this is not an unprecedented decision as  14 MPs were suspended in the 15th Lok Sabha.  As many as  12 MPs were suspended during the monsoon session of 2013 and of these nine were again suspended after a few days.

Although there have been similar instances of suspension in previous sessions, longtime parliament watchers maintain this rule is usually used sparingly and as a “last resort.”  They  said  it is not necessary to go strictly by the rule book and that both sides – the government and the opposition – have to evolve a mechanism to deal with such situations. And it  is usually the government which walks the extra mile  to accommodate the opposition. But in this case, the  ruling alliance has obviously decided that it will not relent and that it does  not mind a prolonged confrontation with the opposition.