The last two times Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress party, ventured into economic policy debates, it was to urge the government to be very cautious about the impact on the common man.
Her two well-publicized missives, on special economic zones and foreign investments in the retail sector, have now been pored over by many pundits who suggest that she is being the populist and cautious party face of a government in political trouble for ignoring the average citizen.
In an interesting switching of roles, Gandhi now appears to be advocating fast-tracking of reforms in other, equally contentious areas, even as the Congress government itself doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to do so.
Addressing the Congress Parliamentary Party at a closed-door meeting last week, Gandhi, who is also chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance coalition, stressed the need to obtain early passage to a slew of legislative amendments, including those on sensitive issues such as labour-law reforms and better targeting of electricity subsidies, which successive governments have not been able to resolve so far.
“This session will be taking up other important legislative agenda. We must give priority to pending Bills pertaining to economic and social reform,” she said, and then went on to list five key Bills.
Gandhi’s list included the controversial Labour Laws (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers by Certain Establishments) Amendment & Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, 2005; the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2005; the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2006; the Judges (Inquiry) Bill, 2006 and the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill, 2005.
What she didn’t say was that the government hasn’t even listed three of the five Bills, containing some of the most controversial of the proposed changes, for consideration in the current Budget session of Parliament, going by the tentative business agenda of both Houses that has been made available.
It is unclear if Gandhi deliberately meant to prod the government to move on some of these long-suffering Bills.
Political analysts believe that Gandhi’s pitch for reforms is part of a political strategy to also maintain a reform-friendly image to industry and foreign investors.
“Even as she makes it a point to present a human face of economic reform, with her publicized concerns for the farmers, etc., she continues to signal reforms. It’s a tough balancing act, at least at present, when the government is clearly on the defensive, her mentioning of the labour laws amendment in particular is a careful assertion of her position,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
Several senior Congress party members declined to speculate on Gandhi’s motives behind mentioning the Bills.
Says Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi: “This is a long session of Parliament. There is a long recess and we will be meeting again from mid-April to mid-May. So one should not rule out the possibility of these Bills being taken up. The Opposition also has to cooperate in not wasting time by disruption. Already, so many days have been lost in the current session due to disruptions.”
Parliamentary affairs minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi told Mint that a review meeting would be held on 15 March, after the debate on general Budget wraps up with the finance minister’s reply.
“The tentative list of Bills can see some changes, depending on the preparedness of the ministeries concerned,” said Dasmunsi.
The Labour Laws Bill is likely to face the toughest challenge. It proposes changes that will prove to be politically sensitive to pilot through Parliament, having already been delayed so far due to stiff opposition from the trade unions, several of them backed by the Left parties which support the government from outside, as well as the industry.
The Bill seeks to revise existing norms and allow employers a freer hand in recruitment. It proposes to do so by relaxing employment levels defined under “small” and “very small” establishments, which are currently outside the purview of the labour laws that prevent retrenchment. It is now proposed that both these classifications, which define current level of employment between 10 and 19 people for small establishments and up to nine in the case of very small, be abolished. Instead, it should be replaced with a new classification that defines such establishments as 500 employees and less. If it is passed, more companies could hire and fire without attracting the otherwise restrictive labour laws.
W.R. Varda Rajan, secretary of the Left-backed Centre of Indian Trade Unions, said the unions had concluded their talks with the labour ministry and made it amply clear that they would not accept the proposed changes precisely because the changes would only enable employers to hire and fire workers at will.
Meanwhile, employers are also opposing parts of the Bill, especially the provision that calls for imprisonment in case they fail to properly file returns. The trade unions have conveyed they could accept e-filing of returns and self-certification for taxation, as demanded by the employers, only if the original classification for “small” and “very small” establishments is retained.
The electricity Bill is an attempt to address the vexing subject of cross subsidies in electricity tariffs in the country, wherein domestic and industrial users pick up the burden of providing cheaper (in some instances, even free) power to the agriculture sector.
Unable to find political traction for eliminating these subsidies, the Bill sought to resolve the problem by mooting better targeting to ensure that only the needy get the benefits.