|India’s government heads into a key parliament session on Tuesday under pressure to pass a tough anti-corruption law and answer its mounting critics who accuse it of drift and inaction.
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 the opposition and show that, half-way through his second mandate, his cabinet still has an appetite for reform.
A new anti-corruption law, known as the Lokpal or Ombudsman bill, is likely to take precedence over all other business, which includes other proposed laws on foreign investment in retail, aviation and the pension sectors.
The government was caught by surprise in August when ageing 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 the end of the session on December 21.
The government has promised to pass a Lokpal bill, but not necessarily the one proposed by Hazare which would make the ombudsman capable of investigating a sitting prime minister and members of the lower bureaucracy.
“The Lokpal bill is going to be the focus, but we don’t know whether the bill as sought by Hazare will be brought for consideration and passed,” M.R.
Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research, a think-tank that tracks parliament, said Monday.
Observers are watching to see if the left-leaning ruling coalition has the ability to pass legislation in the increasingly dysfunctional parliament, which the opposition has successfully disrupted in previous sittings.
The entire winter session last year was lost due to constant adjournments, without any legislation being passed.
“There appears to be a logjam in parliament even on smaller and uncontentious bills,” said Madhavan.
“The last session saw only 10 bills being passed and the previous one five,” he added, referring to the monsoon and budget sittings.
Mridula Mukherjee, professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the government had been on the defensive for more than a year over corruption and annual inflation of nearly 10 per cent.
“The winter session will test whether the alliance can recover ground and move forward,” she told AFP.
Industry groups are also hoping the government will push through key business 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.
India’s inflation rate edged closer to double digits in October, defying market forecasts and calling into question the strategy of the central bank that has hiked interest rates 13 times since March last year.
Much in the winter session will depend on the behaviour of the opposition in the famously unruly parliament. Protesting lawmakers have consistently ignored the speaker’s requests for order and have forced repeated adjournments.
Sunil Bharti Mittal, chief of India’s top mobile phone firm Airtel, has implored the opposition led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party to cooperate with the government.
“While India is not at war from outside, there is certainly a sense that it is in crisis from within,” he wrote in an open letter addressed to the opposition last week.
“It is the need of the hour that the opposition parties rise above politics and wholeheartedly support the government in fulfilling its duties by way of passing some critical bills of national importance,” he said.
The opposition has already suggested it plans to move an adjournment motion on Tuesday, however, as a protest against the government’s failure to rein in inflation.