India’s shaky government and the opposition locked horns on Thursday as parliament re-opened for a crucial session that will see a recent string of pro-market reforms being hotly contested.
The previous session was a washout with parliament passing just four bills because of disruptions from opposition protests over corruption, adding to a sense of malaise in India where economic growth has slumped alarmingly.
“We all have an obligation, in opposition as well as in government, to work together to enable our parliamentary democracy,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in an appeal to the opposition on Thursday.
“Our parliament has a very heavy legislative agenda during the winter session. I seek cooperation from my colleagues in the house.”
Singh’s ruling coalition lost its majority in September when a key ally withdrew its 19 MPs to protest against the government’s decisions to hike fuel prices and allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector.
Opponents have billed the measures as anti-poor, saying they are aimed at pandering to large foreign corporations.
Sushma Swaraj, leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), warned the month-long session could be as stormy as the previous one, which ended on September 7.
“We want the house to run (but) there are several issues waiting to be discussed,” she told reporters.
The BJP insists that the government promised last year that the decision to allow in foreign supermarkets would be made only with a consensus in parliament – a stand which is disputed by India’s ruling Congress party.
“There was no assurance in that sense of the word,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said in the run-up to the session.
The first day is almost certain to see protests and a likely early djournment.
The new session is also likely to take up a divisive anti-corruption draft law and a bill to protect whistleblowers.
Singh’s government has been rocked by a string of graft accusations, including revelations that officials pocketed millions of dollars when awarding tenders for telecoms and coal-mining ventures.
According to the New Delhi-based think-tank PRS, 102 bills still pending include important legislation on issues like land acquisition, access to food, affirmative action for women and a host of anti-corruption initiatives.
“Our country is ailing while political institutions look increasingly corruption-ridden, opportunistic and effete in meeting national challenges,” said The Times of India, the biggest English-language newspaper, in an editorial.
“At this hour of crisis, India’s parliamentarians claim without exception that public interest is their top priority. The winter session will show if this is true.”