Indian Lawmakers Offer Familiar Rejoinder to PM’s Well-Worn Plea
By Ross Colvin 6 August 2013
NEW DELHI — Standing outside India’s parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to opposition parties to allow the legislature to function without disruption so that it could pass key bills.
His appeal, delivered in his usual quiet monotone, fell on deaf ears. Opposition lawmakers disrupted proceedings with demands for Singh to quit over corruption allegations. With parliament effectively stalled, the government gave up and adjourned the session, two days earlier than scheduled. Just two out of 38 bills had been passed.
That was in May.
On Monday, Singh again stood outside parliament to appeal to political parties in the world’s biggest democracy to cooperate with the government to ensure the monsoon session of parliament that started this week is “truly productive.”
With dozens of important bills piling up and a national election possibly just months away, the session may be Singh’s last chance to drive through some long-pending economic reforms and get parliament’s seal of approval on its flagship program to give cheap grain to 67 percent of the population.
In New Delhi, there is much speculation that the government, now ruling as a minority after the withdrawal of key allies, could call early elections in November or December, although it insists that it plans to serve out its full term until next May.
“We have wasted lot of time in the previous two or three sessions and I hope that will not be repeated in this session,” Singh said, speaking so softly that he was barely audible at times. “I appeal to the opposition to cooperate with the government in smooth running of the session.”
But when the trouble came within minutes of his plea, it was from Singh’s own Congress party.
Congress lawmakers forced the lower house of parliament to adjourn many times on Monday as they protested against their party’s decision last week to break up Andhra Pradesh into two states. Andhra is a major IT hub for multi-nationals such as Google and attracts much of India’s foreign direct investment.
“The whole nation is watching. Please sit down,” said an exasperated Satpal Maharaj, a lawmaker who was presiding over proceedings in the lower house amid shouting from protesting lawmakers.
Singh does not have time to waste. The monsoon session is short—there are just 16 working days, even fewer if you don’t include the four days devoted to private members’ bills.
The government has proposed a formidable legislative agenda—43 bills and ordinances including one measure to allow up to 49 percent foreign investment in the pension sector and another aimed at simplifying the process of buying land for business purposes.
The most important measure is the food security ordinance, which will lapse if not passed this session.
The $22 billion cheap food plan is a central plank of the Congress party’s election platform as it seeks a third straight term in government. The plan aims to give 5 kg of cheap rice and wheat every month to 800 million people, more than doubling the reach of the existing subsidized food system.
The plan is due to be discussed in parliament on Wednesday, after a planned vote on Tuesday on the Companies Bill, which aims to strengthen corporate governance and ease the process of mergers and acquisitions.
“The intention of the UPA [United Progressive Alliance coalition] is to use the monsoon session to push as many bills as possible in an attempt to wipe out four years of misrule and lack of governance,” Arun Jaitley, a leader of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told the India Today weekly.
Frequently paralyzed by verbal brawls between lawmakers, India’s parliament is doing less and less work. The 2009-12 parliamentary session was the least productive in nearly three decades, according to the think tank PRS legislative research.
In 2012 alone, the parliament passed just 22 of the 94 bills listed for consideration and passing.
Additional reporting by Devidutta Tripathy and Nigam Prusty in New Delhi, and Sharat Pradhan in Mumbai.