India Insight

Heat guaranteed in parliament’s winter session

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

It is getting colder by the day in New Delhi but the winter session of parliament, which starts on Thursday, promises to be a heated one.

In September, the monsoon session was largely disrupted by opposition protests. Since then India’s political landscape has gone through drastic, and some dramatic, changes.

Here’s a quick recap:

REFORM BOOST: This was the spark. The government allowed foreign investment in retail and initiated reforms in sectors such as aviation, insurance and pension.

To battle India’s ballooning deficit, the government raised diesel prices and capped the number of subsidised cooking gas cylinders per family. Obviously, people were angry.

Rahul Gandhi and an embarrassment of titles

Rahul Gandhi, a lawmaker and son of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, smiles as he speaks with the media in New Delhi March 6, 2012. REUTERS/Parivartan Sharma   “Young emperor”, “scion”, “leader-in-waiting” are some of the words used to affectionately describe Congress MP Rahul Gandhi. His official party designation is Congress general secretary, but that could soon change.

Various media reports say Rahul will soon be elevated to the “No. 2 position” in the Congress Party, and a lot of designations are being bandied about to qualify for the post just below the party chief, otherwise known as his mother Sonia Gandhi.

He could receive the title of “secretary general” or “working president” or “vice president”, but these almost feel like they’re trying to confuse the poor guy, not coronate him.

Mining for votes in the middle of Coalgate

By Shashank Chouhan

It took more than 10 days for the chief of India’s ruling party to react to the ‘Coalgate’ episode that has tainted Manmohan Singh’s government and blocked parliamentary proceedings in the monsoon session that limped to its close on Friday.

But what was the reaction of Sonia Gandhi to alleged irregularities in coal block allocations that might have cost the treasury billions of dollars? Here’s what Gandhi told her party’s lawmakers at a meeting: “Let us stand up and fight, fight with a sense of purpose and fight aggressively.”

Instead of reprimanding her lawmakers over corruption allegations, she goaded them to take the fight to the enemy camp — the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Media reports about her speech said she made it clear that the Congress party must respond to the “negative politics” of the BJP in upcoming state assembly elections.

Caste trumps merit for political dividends in India

Passions are running high in parliament and the stakes are huge. The contentious issue of reservation is back to haunt Indian politics and it may well decide who runs the next government in the world’s largest democracy. Sparks were seen flying in the upper house on Wednesday when two MPs from rival parties came to blows during the tabling of a bill to amend the Constitution, providing for reservations in promotions at work for backward castes.

The issue, however, is nothing new. Reservation is a recurring theme in India’s democracy. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s embattled government seems to be returning to identity politics at a time when it is badly cornered, thanks to a string of corruption scandals, a ballooning fiscal deficit and low investor sentiment.

The move comes after the Supreme Court in April struck down former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati’s policy of a promotion quota in government service.

Has India lost its ‘cartoon’ humour?

The Indian government’s decision to withdraw a controversial cartoon from a political science textbook this week couldn’t have been more ironic. Just a day earlier, India had observed the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of its parliament, seen as one of the pillars of the world’s largest democracy.

While it is best left to our imagination as to why the cartoon, roughly as old as the Indian republic itself, created the controversy now, the government’s reaction to the row is alarming and sets a dangerous precedent. The cartoon shows India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, holding a whip as the father of the Indian constitution, B R Ambedkar, is seated on a snail. It was first published in 1949, and was reprinted in a textbook a few years ago – without anyone batting an eyelid. The cartoonist’s intent was to caricature the slow pace at which the constitution was being finalised.

The government’s decision now to withdraw the cartoon and subsequently review all textbooks could be perceived as an attempt to pacify a certain section of society. Ambedkar is an icon for the cause of the Dalits — India’s former “untouchables” – and is deeply revered by millions in the country today.

Sachin Tendulkar: from Wankhede to parliament

So it’s just a matter of time, according to media reports, before Sachin Tendulkar swaps his India jersey for starched white and walks into the Rajya Sabha.

While the clamour was growing to honour him with the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award, few expected him to be nominated to the upper house.

That too when he is not yet done with cricket.

Tendulkar’s meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi at her residence on Thursday was probably the early inkling of a new innings and by afternoon, political parties were falling over each other to congratulate him.

Amid parliamentary impasse, MPs cheer more perks

By Annie Banerji

On the way to New Delhi’s international airport, three armed men lean out of the windows of a jeep, furiously waving at the steady stream of traffic to pull over.

As the cars swerve to the dusty edge of the highway, a convoy of a dozen sleek sedans zips past in a blaze of whining sirens and flashing red beacons, breaking all traffic regulations and leaving behind a tangle of vehicles in its wake.

A local politician is late for his flight.

Such situations are likely to become even more commonplace in Asia’s third-largest economy, thanks to a committee that this week submitted a report calling for all MPs to have flashing lights put on their cars to allow them to speed through the country’s clogged streets.

The dog days of India’s bizarre summer of politics

Perhaps the government’s decision to push back the opening of the upcoming monsoon session of parliament was not the best idea. For as the dog days of the sub-continent’s sweltering summer drag on, the parliament-less politicians sweat from the sublime to the ridiculous in the baking heat.

From the haphazard ensemble of senior ministers that flocked to New Delhi’s airport to greet yoga guru turned social activist Swami Ramdev with more fanfare than is reserved for visiting heads of state, to the current conspiracy swirling New Delhi surrounding espionage chewing gum found in the finance minister’s private chambers, it has been a bizarre summer for politics fuelled by the hungry media in the world’s largest democracy.

Kapil Sibal, as Human Resource and Development minister, could have spent his summer break drawing up plans to overhaul an education sector that looks dangerously inadequate to deal with the demographic dividend of millions of young Indians that New Delhi likes to trumpet. Instead, he spent his days holed up in five-star hotels begging Ramdev not to stop eating, and playing it coy in press conferences after quietly ignoring veteran activist Anna Hazare’s demands for a stronger anti-graft bill.

Disruptive opposition blames government for parliament woes

A lack of accountability from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a failure of consultation by his ruling Congress-led coalition and too few days of legislative business, rather than opposition protests that smothered months of legislative debate, are to blame for the paralysis of India’s parliamentary democracy, the leader of India’s opposition party wrote on Monday.

Arun Jaitley

Making no reference to the weeks of protest by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that saw opposition members shouting, chanting and waving placards in the well of both houses to force the cancellation of an entire legislative session and threaten the passage of the 2011-12 budget, Arun Jaitley called for more “proper conduct” from Indian MPs in an opinion piece in The Indian Express that appeared to lay the blame of parliamentary disruption at the government’s door.

“In the last few decades the participation of prime ministers in parliamentary debates has declined. Their effective intervention is confined to reading written texts prepared by their offices. This is unacceptable… The PM has to be the most accountable in a democracy. His depleting presence in Parliament compels one to suggest (the British system of Prime Minister’s Questions) be successfully replicated in India,” Jaitley wrote.

The bitter truth behind BJP’s deafening budget silence

To some, the parliamentary walkout by India’s opposition prior to the vote on the country’s annual budget motion marked the failure of India’s ruling Congress party to engage with its primary adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), over its claims that the Prime Minister had lied to parliament to protect his own reputation.

To others, the sight of BJP leader Sushma Swaraj leading her MPs out of the chamber as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee prepared to deliver the most important parliamentary bill of the year encapsulated the sorry state of India’s increasingly bitter partisan politics that show no signs of repair since trumpeting corruption became the opposition’s raison d’etre.
Lawmakers and leaders of India's main opposition alliance led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) including Sushma Swaraj (front, L) and L.K. Advani (front, R) attend a protest against rising prices wearing aprons with protest slogans inside the premises of the Parliament House in New Delhi REUTERS/Stringer(INDIA)
Swaraj would later tell The Hindu that her walkout was to avoid disrupting the passage of the bill, but the damning point rang out loud and clear: the opposition had decided the corruption drumbeat was more important than the budget.

Mukherjee had earlier pleaded with senior BJP leaders to allow the budget to be debated prior to any discussion on a parliamentary privilege motion submitted against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by Swaraj, promising a two-and-a-half hour debate on the issue after the budget had passed.

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