Chaos threatens crucial session for Indian parliament

Protests could delay bills on corruption and foreign investment.

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NEW DELHI // India's parliament opened its winter session yesterday and then quickly adjourned amid renewed protests by members angry about everything from corruption to soaring inflation.

The 21-day session was scheduled to debate a bill creating a government ombudsman that was a key demand of anti-corruption protests over the summer. It was also expected to deal with bills on education, pensions and judicial standards.

However, soon after the session was convened, opposition members of parliament jumped to their feet and began shouting protests. Some ruling-party MPs from the south called for the split of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Opposition legislators railed against rising prices.

When the home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, rose to address the lower chamber, the opposition exploded in protests and refused to listen to him because of his alleged role in the shady sale of cellphone spectrum when he was finance minister.

Both chambers of the house were quickly adjourned for the day.

"This is a form of legitimate parliamentary tactics that we are going to resort to," said Arun Jaitley, a leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The 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 (Dh147bn).

With a faltering economy and high inflation adding to his woes, Mr 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.

"The government is prepared to discuss all issues which the opposition wants to raise. We hope the session will move smoothly," Mr Singh said at the start of the day.

Only 15 laws have been passed by parliament in India in the past year, according to the PRS Legislative Research think tank, leading to fears about governance and the government's faltering reform agenda.

The 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 the 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.

Mr Hazare, 74, 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 Mr 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 2010 winter session was lost due to constant adjournments.

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.

Much in the winter session will depend on the behaviour of the opposition led by the BJP.

"While India is not at war from outside, there is certainly a sense that it is in crisis from within," the 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.