Indian parliament paralyzed for month by scandal

RAVI NESSMAN - Associated Press
December 7, 2010
Protesting opposition lawmakers hold posters in front of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi outside the parliament building in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Dec.7, 2010. The Indian parliament was paralyzed for the 18th working day Tuesday with the opposition demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe a telecoms scandal that cost the country billions. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)
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Protesting opposition lawmakers hold posters in front of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi outside the parliament building in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Dec.7, 2010. The Indian parliament was paralyzed for the 18th working day Tuesday with the opposition demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe a telecoms scandal that cost the country billions.

Here is what the parliament of the world's largest democracy was supposed to discuss Tuesday: teaching conditions in private schools, a raging Maoist insurgency, sexual harassment legislation and banking and prisoner bills.

Instead, it collapsed into pandemonium — again.

For the 18th day, opposition lawmakers charged to the front the instant India's parliament opened, holding protest signs, chanting slogans and forcing it to adjourn with almost nothing accomplished.

With just six more working days left before parliament goes on a two-month break, it appears likely the entire winter session will be lost, the victim of a telecommunications scandal that has cost the country billions and shocked even Indians used to tales of widespread corruption.

"The opposition has seized on an opportunity. It tasted blood, and the government is not relenting," said Neerja Chowdhury, editor of political affairs at the New Indian Express newspaper.

The political furor centers on the 2008 sale of second-generation, or 2G, cellular licenses in a bewildering process that netted India only 124 billion rupees ($2.7 billion). In a report issued last month, the state auditor general said the 2G sale cost the government as much as $36 billion in lost revenue.

While then-Telecoms Minister Andimuthu Raja was forced to resign and the Supreme Court has been holding hearings on what went wrong, opposition lawmakers spilled onto the floor of parliament, demanding the government form a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the sale.

It is a piece of raucous political theater playing daily in the majestic 83-year-old parliament building — an immense ring fringed by 144 towering sandstone columns — designed by famed architect Herbert Baker to house the legislature of the prize colony of the British Empire.

At 11 a.m. Tuesday, with the cameras of parliament broadcasting live, an aide in the lower house, known as the Lok Sabha, chanted: "The speaker is coming," and Meira Kumar, in an elegant blue sari and a brown shawl, took her seat. In an instant, dozens of opposition lawmakers appeared in front of her desk screaming, "We want JPC. We want JPC."

"Sit down, go to your place," she said calmly, with a tight, annoyed smile. After a minute, she adjourned the session for an hour, put her hands together in a sign of respect and left.

At noon, another legislator took the speaker's chair, opposition lawmakers rushed again as their colleagues stood at their desks and struggled to be heard above the din. Women's Minister Krishna Tirath managed to introduce the sexual harassment bill with a voice vote that appeared impossible to hear, before the afternoon session was adjourned as well. The shouting stopped instantly.

Total time in session: about five minutes.

The upper house, the Rajya Sabha, was adjourned under similar circumstances.

The paralysis in parliament has stoked concerns that public confidence in India's government — already incredibly low — could further plummet.

"It adds to the perception that parliamentarians don't do any work," said C.V. Madhukar, director of PRS Legislative Research, which monitors parliament.

The 24-day winter session, which started Nov. 9 and ends Dec. 13, was scheduled to take up bills on land acquisitions, judicial accountability, reforming accounting standards, amending labor laws and setting up a national mineral regulation authority.

None of that has happened.

"There are huge policy costs of delayed legislation," Madhukar said. "That's not helpful for Indian democracy."

The government did manage to pass crucial supplemental spending bills worth more than 450 billion rupees ($10 billion) by voice vote, with no debate, a situation that even Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who pushed for the bills, lamented.

"Effectively, what the opposition has done is that they have held a gun to the head of democracy," said Manish Tewari, spokesman for the ruling Congress Party. "There was a very substantive legislative agenda, which now stands completely derailed."

Tewari says the government's offer of a Central Bureau of Investigation probe monitored by the Supreme Court into the telecoms scandal, as well as the ongoing investigation by parliament's opposition-led Public Accounts Committee, is sufficient.

The opposition says it has no faith in the government and will continue with the protests until it wins a parliamentary probe with the authority to call Cabinet ministers to testify.

"We want the house to function, but the government's inflexibility is causing the house disruption. The whole onus is on the government," said Prakash Javdekar, a lawmaker and spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

Inder Malhotra, a journalist who has covered parliament for nearly six decades, said that with both the opposition and the government showing no sign of relenting, the logjam could continue into the far more important budget session that starts in February.

Despite the turmoil, lawmakers did manage to gather amiably last week in their finest clothing to take their traditional group photo.

Disrupting parliament is time-tested strategy for opposition Indian lawmakers to pressure the government and call attention to their concerns.

In the 1960s, lawmakers froze parliament until then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi allowed them to read out a corruption report on the floor. In the decades since, they paralyzed parliament repeatedly until in 1996 they forged an agreement that still hangs on the wall there to treat each other courteously, not rush the speaker's desk and not insult one another, according to Chowdhury, the Indian Express editor.

"It lasted a few weeks," she said.