The Indian government’s stratagem to enact economic reforms in defiance of an opposition-packed upper house of parliament has come unstuck, leaving prime minister Narendra Modi blocked by rivals of the Congress and other parties.
Mr Modi of the Bharatiya Janata party became the first prime minister in 30 years to win full control of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, when he triumphed in the general election last May.
He had planned to circumvent the opposition-dominated Rajya Sabha, the upper house, by issuing temporary executive ordinances, which have the effect of law but must be subsequently approved by parliament.
Until now, the BJP thought it could call a joint session of both houses of parliament, override the Rajya Sabha and turn ordinances into permanent laws.
But the joint parliamentary sitting has not proved the magic wand Mr Modi and his ministers had hoped, since it can only function if one house of parliament has rejected legislation. The upper house has been deliberately delaying rather than rejecting the bills.
Opposition politicians who dominate the Rajya Sabha have repeatedly disrupted proceedings and blocked passage of reformist bills such as the one increasing the foreign ownership limit for Indian insurers from 26 per cent to 49 per cent.
Jayant Sinha, minister of state for finance, accused the opposition of blocking all debate in the upper house “so that we don’t even have a chance to put it up to the vote in the Rajya Sabha. So you can’t even say it’s been defeated, so they’re trying to block the joint session aspect as well . . . It’s a filibuster.”
Among the most controversial of the BJP ordinances are one making compulsory land acquisition easier for infrastructure, industry and housing, and another providing for the auction of coal mining blocs.
Members of the opposition Congress party have condemned the practice as undemocratic, even though their governments have also issued ordinances in the past.
This week President Pranab Mukherjee, head of state and a former Congress minister, criticised both the use of ordinances by the BJP and the disruption of parliament by other parties.
“Ordinances are meant for a specific purpose to meet an extraordinary situation under extraordinary circumstances,” he said, calling for an end to legislative deadlock. “It is the responsibility of the entire political establishment to put their heads together and work out a workable solution.”
Mr Modi and the BJP hope that Congress will change its tune and adopt a more co-operative stance in the next session of parliament starting in February, especially since Congress itself has in the past supported such reforms as the insurance bill and a proposed introduction of a nationwide general sales tax.
In the absence of co-operation, the BJP may have to wait for its recent election victories in states such as Haryana to bear fruit in the changed composition of the upper house, whose members are elected by state legislatures. “The reality is that the Rajya Sabha is going to flip over, and that’s going to happen within a couple of years,” said Mr Sinha.
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