|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. India’s inflation rate edged closer to double digits in October, defying market forecasts and calling into question the strategy of the central bank, which has hiked interest rates 13 times since March last year.
Much in the winter session will depend on the behaviour of the opposition led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It has already suggested it plans to boycott Home Minister P. Chidambaram by preventing him from speaking in the parliament over his alleged role in the telecom sale scam in 2008 when he served as finance minister.
“While India is not at war from outside, there is certainly a sense that it is in crisis from within,” leading businessman Sunil Bharti Mittal wrote in an open letter 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.