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Reform bills set for delay in noisy Parliament

Reform bills set for delay in noisy Parliament
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First Published: Fri, Jul 23 2010. 10 56 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Jul 23 2010. 10 56 AM IST
New Delhi: The ruling coalition faces an emboldened Opposition raring to attack it on soaring inflation and other issues when Parliament resumes on Monday, possibly distracting from debate on several key reform bills.
The Opposition is on a high after successfully shutting down parts of the country this month to protest against a fuel price hike, but their ideological differences will likely mean only a short-lived unity on some issues of the day.
Besides high prices, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a slew of issues to attack the government on, including last week’s failed talks between India and Pakistan and rising Maoist violence.
This could delay enacting of legislation, including bills to expand a welfare scheme to provide cheap grains to the poor, simplify taxation and to cap private firms’ liability in case of a nuclear accident.
Cheap food will boost the ruling Congress party’s chances in upcoming state elections, while tax reforms will cut business costs and raise government revenues. But these reforms could be delayed if opposition protests shut down Parliament.
“Opposition actions will create some discomfort for the (ruling) Congress party, but will not derail the policy programme of the government,” Seema Desai of Eurasia consultancy group said in a research note this week.
“Right and left do not have a history of long-term collaboration on anything and share no ideological affinities whatsoever.”
The communists will seek a special discussion on the fuel price hike and on high prices of essential goods, a demand that is certain to disrupt proceedings on the opening day as lawmakers troop to the Speaker’s chair shouting for their cause.
Rallying the people
Food prices in India have been rising at double-digit annual rates for nearly a year and fuel prices were hiked thrice in 2010 in a country where over 40% of its 1.2 billion citizens live in abject poverty.
The Congress-led government has said inflation should cool with the new harvest coming in and has refused to roll back on fuel prices, saying it is necessary to bridge a fiscal deficit.
The often-squabbling Opposition capitalised on public anger, and on 5 July rallied hundreds of thousands of people in a strike that shut down parts of the country.
“Frankly, I’m not very sanguine. They’ll be at their disruptive best,” a Congress leader, requesting anonymity, said referring to the opposition in Parliament.
But there is only so much the Opposition can agree on, given their ideological differences, a fact that the government might use to push through some bills.
“On entire (range of) issues, how can you expect all opposition parties to remain united?” communist leader Basudeb Acharia said.
The left-of-centre Congress has 208 members in the 545-member lower house of Parliament (Lok Sabha) , with allies taking it past the half-way mark required to pass ordinary legislation.
But reform-suspicious partners and a socialist old-guard have meant the government has, in the past, had to shelve big-ticket reforms such as opening up the retail, pension and insurance sectors to greater foreign investments.
Reforms in the retail sector are seen helping rein in food price inflation by curbing waste, but this is opposed by smaller retailers who fear they will be wiped out.
The government has tested the waters by floating a discussion paper on retail, but little movement is likely in this session.
“We want that legislation marked up for debate and discussion be allowed,” Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said.
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First Published: Fri, Jul 23 2010. 10 56 AM IST