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Stormy start to Indian parliament's last session before election

Source: Reuters - Wed, 5 Feb 2014 11:14 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Recasts, adds editorial comment)

* Last parliamentary session before election

* Congress pushes anti-corruption bills

* Opposition decries "election agenda"

By Shyamantha Asokan and Angus MacSwan

NEW DELHI, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Congress party hopes of pushing through new laws to tackle corruption stalled on Wednesday when the Indian parliament's last session before a general election was adjourned amid rowdy scenes over the proposed creation of a new state.

The session, which will go through to Feb. 21, is seen as a final chance for Congress, which leads the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, to convince voters it is taking action on graft and to showcase leader Rahul Gandhi.

After 10 years in power, its popularity has sagged in large part over a series of graft scandals as well as its inability to halt a slide in the economy.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calls it a lame duck government that is merely making a last-ditch attempt to shore up support. It should leave decisions to the next government, BJP leaders say.

On the eve of parliament's reopening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to all parties to help push through legislation. But Finance Minister P. Chidambaram acknowledged that might be a forlorn hope.

"I doubt whether it will pass any law. We've to go through the ritual of attending parliament every day and coming back empty handed," Chidambaram said in a speech to students.

Congress will try to push through 39 bills, including six anti-corruption bills, to address public anger over graft. They address issues such as protection for whistleblowers and corruption in the judiciary. It will also try to pass an interim budget expected to contain some pre-election sops for voters.

But shouting and protests over the creation of a new southern state derailed other matters when the session began, despite speaker Meira Kumar's appeals for calm. The new state, Telangana, would be carved out of Andhra Pradesh and should generate vote-winning support for Congress.

Members of parliament from Andhra Pradesh crowded around the rostrum of the chamber to denounce the proposed split, some carrying placards saying "Hail United Andhra Pradesh".

The turn of events was hardly a surprise and the same might happen again on Thursday.

The Economic Times urged the opposition not to block the functioning of what it called the worst-performing House since independence from Britain in 1947.

"The opposition should also agree to cooperate in passing other important pieces of economic legislation cleared by various standing committees," it said in an editorial.

The world's largest democracy must hold a parliamentary election by May and the date is expected to be announced round about the close of the session.

The bills due to come up for debate cover issues that Gandhi, the fourth generation member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that leads Congress, has championed, including women's empowerment and graft.

It may be too little, too late.

Opinion polls put the BJP, a conservative Hindu nationalist party spearheaded by Narendra Modi, ahead of Congress.

The newly formed Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, Party (AAP), which campaigns against corruption and took power in the capital Delhi in local elections in December, could draw voters away from either one while a number of smaller parties are discussing the formation of a "Third Front".

Chandan Mitra, a BJP upper house member, said parliament should not be rushed into passing bills without due scrutiny.

"There is no obligation on the part of the opposition to allow Mr Rahul Gandhi to get his agenda pushed though," Mitra told Reuters before the session opened. "The government is trying to end this term on a high, but we don't want to give them an easy ride."

UPHILL STRUGGLE

Also on the slate is a bill on reserving a bloc of parliamentary seats for women - reflecting the growing prominence of women's issues after a series of sexual assaults.

Mitra said the interim budget was a priority.

"The interim budget will be passed as no one wants a shutdown," he said.

Ajay Gudavarthy, a politics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said Congress hoped to use the session to present itself and Gandhi as forces that can fight corruption.

"The party is trying to build an image for Rahul Gandhi. He is a bit of a non-symbol now and that is a big problem," he said.

Mandira Kala, head of research at PRS Legislative Research, said the corruption issue should not distract attention from the economy. Once a star performer, India's growth has slowed in recent years and it is now weathering a storm in emerging markets.

"When you look at what the economy needs there are a lot of bills that are not being looked at," said Kala, picking out a pending higher education bill and a mining bill as examples." (Addtional reporting by Malini Menon, Editing by Robert Birsel and Ron Popeski)

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