Five opposition parties, including Congress, skip PMO briefing on COVID

TMC, NCP break ranks after govt. allows discussion in Rajya Sabha

The Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, RJD, CPI and CPI(M) skipped the briefing for floor leaders of Parliament by Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan, organised by the Prime Minister’s Office, on the COVID-19 pandemic and the evolving situation.

The Opposition leaders had met earlier on Tuesday morning to discuss the issue in Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge’s office in Parliament. The attendees included NCP’s Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut, TMC’s Derek O’ Brien, SP’s Ramgopal Yadav, RJD leader Manoj K. Jha and CPI leader Binoy Viswam among others.

The meeting was to primarily organise a coordinated parliamentary strategy. Many of the members argued that any discussion on COVID must be on the floor of the House in presence of all members. Selective briefing for just the floor leaders when Parliament was in session is not acceptable.

Change stance

Within hours of the meeting, the government accepted the Opposition’s position and allowed the debate on COVID in Rajya Sabha. Following the discussion in Rajya Sabha, many parties changed their stance — including TMC, NCP and SP. CPI(M) Parliamentary Party leader Elamaram Kareem had written to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi opposing the selective briefing on Monday.

Though the AAP did not attend the Opposition meeting, it also decided to boycott the Health Secretary’s briefing. In a tweet, the party’s Rajya Sabha MP said the government needs to settle the issues raised by the farmers. He said that when the whole country was suffering from COVID, the BJP was busy organising rallies. And it is now only doing a lip service by organising this select briefing.

Snooping discussed

At the Opposition meeting, the parties also discussed the latest revelations in the Pegasus snooping case.

“We are not happy with the explanation given by the IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in Lok Sabha on Monday. Till the government comes up with a satisfactory reply we shall continue to stall the proceedings in both Houses of Parliament,” an Opposition leader said. The only exceptions will be made during a debate on COVID, farm laws and fuel hike, the leader added.

At a press conference later in the day, the TMC said it will not let either of the Houses run till the conclusion of the monsoon session on August 13, till the government comes clean on the charges of snooping and surveillance using the Pegasus spyware. Both Houses of Parliament have to discuss this issue threadbare, the party said.

“This (Pegasus spyware) is a serious issue and the TMC will not compromise on it. We will not let either House run till this government comes clean on the charges of snooping and surveillance. The government has spent millions to hack into phones at a time when the country is dealing with a pandemic,” TMC’s Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien said.

IT and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw had on Monday dismissed media reports on the use of Pegasus software to snoop on Indians, saying the allegations levelled just ahead of the monsoon session of Parliament are aimed at maligning Indian democracy. The TMC alleged that this was a false statement.

TMC Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra said, “We are saying on record that the IT Minister lied on the floor of the House. We just want the PM, HM and the IT Minister to answer if India is a client of NSO (Israeli firm that makes the Pegasus spyware) or not? We have a list of questions for the government and we will not allow Parliament to run unless these questions are answered.”

The government needs to answer if any of its departments purchased Pegasus. They also need to answer whether it is still being deployed for snooping at the government’s behest, the TMC said.

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