|India’s Parliament opened its winter session on Tuesday and then quickly adjourned itself amid renewed protests by lawmakers angry about everything from corruption to soaring inflation.
The 21-day session was scheduled to debate a bill creating a government ombudsman that was a key demand of anti-corruption protests over the summer. It was also expected to deal with bills on education, pensions and judicial standards.
However, soon after the session was convened, lawmakers jumped to their feet and began shouting protests. Some ruling party lawmakers from the south called for the split of the current state of Andhra Pradesh. Opposition lawmakers railed against rising prices.
When Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram rose to address the lower chamber, the opposition exploded in protests and refused to listen to him because of his alleged role in the shady sale of cellphone spectrum when he was finance minister.
Both chambers of the house were quickly adjourned for the day.
“This is a form of legitimate parliamentary tactics that we are going to resort to,” said Arun Jaitley, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
Parliament lost almost all of last year’s winter session to opposition protests against corruption, and government officials appealed to their colleagues to stop obstructing the legislature and allow important bills to be debated and passed.
“There is work to do and we must proceed with the work,” Law Minister Salman Kurshid told Times Now news channel.
India’s opposition disrupted parliament on Tuesday at the start of a crucial winter session in which the government is under pressure to pass a tough new anti-corruption law.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his ruling Congress party have been reeling from a series of corruption scandals, including the flawed sale of telecom licences that could have cost the country up to $40 billion.
With a faltering economy and high inflation adding to his woes, Singh is looking to seize back momentum from his critics and show that, half-way through his second mandate, his cabinet still has an appetite for reform.
Proceedings began with noisy protests from opposition lawmakers, who ignored pleas for order from the parliamentary speaker and the prime minister and eventually forced an adjournment for the day.
“The government is prepared to discuss all issues which the opposition wants to raise. We hope the session will move smoothly,” Singh told reporters at the start of the day outside parliament.
Only 15 laws have been passed by parliament in India in the last year, according to the PRS Legislative Research think-tank, leading to fears about governance and the government’s faltering reform agenda.
A new anti-corruption law, known as the Lokpal or Ombudsman bill, is likely to take precedence over all other business this session, which includes other proposed laws on foreign investment in retail, aviation and pensions.
The government was caught by surprise in August when social activist Anna Hazare launched a 12-day hunger strike to press for the Lokpal bill, which drew huge public support in an outpouring of anger about endemic graft.
The 74-year-old activist has warned that he will strike again unless the legislation, which would create a powerful ombudsman able to investigate and prosecute public servants, is passed by December 21.
The government has promised to pass a Lokpal bill. But it will not necessarily be the one proposed by Hazare, which would give the ombudsman power to investigate a sitting prime minister and members of the lower bureaucracy.
Observers are also watching to see if the left-leaning ruling coalition and the opposition will restore order in the famously unruly but increasingly dysfunctional parliament.
The entire winter session in 2010 was lost due to constant adjournments.
“There appears to be a logjam in parliament even on smaller and uncontentious bills,” said M.R. Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research, a think-tank that tracks parliament.
“The last session saw only 10 bills being passed and the previous one five.”
Industry groups and leading businessmen have called on the government to push through key reforms to dispel a growing perception that slow policy-making is hurting the country’s economic growth.
“Many industry leaders feel there is a chronic deficit in governance and policy making amid slowing economic growth and rising inflation,” ASSOCHAM, an industry body, said in a statement last week.