NEW DELHI: More than 20,000 Indians including prominent business leaders have signed an online petition urging lawmakers to end weeks of rowdy protests that have paralysed parliament in the world’s largest democracy. The petition on the Change.org site said public trust in the parliamentary system could be damaged by the protests, which have made it impossible for the government to push through key legislative reforms. “Perpetual disruption can never be the rule,” said the petition, which has garnered 21,164 signatures since it was launched five days ago by the Confederation of Indian Industry. “The importance of uninterrupted legislative function of the parliament can hardly be overemphasised.” It said lawmakers had been prevented from debating a long-pending bill to create a national goods and services tax to replace a myriad of overlapping state duties that deter investment in the country. India’s parliament is notoriously rowdy, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party employed similar tactics to disrupt the former government before coming to power last year.
But the current session has been particularly raucous, and last week the speaker suspended 25 opposition lawmakers. Much of the opposition’s ire has centred on Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who is under pressure over her role in helping Lalit Modi get a passport in London.
The exiled former cricket boss faces allegations of money laundering in India linked to a lucrative television deal. With just one more day to go until the next parliamentary recess, debate was once again halted yesterday as opposition members loudly heckled Swaraj. While the BJP enjoys a clear majority in parliament’s lower house, or Lok Sabha, his party is in a minority in the upper house, where it needs opposition support to push through legislation. “They should get together and pass this very beneficial reform for the country,” Adi Godrej, chairman of Godrej Group, told Network 18 yesterday. “India could have five years of double digit GDP growth if the GST is in place.” For years, Indian businesses have lobbied for the new sales tax which will subsume myriads of federal and state tax levies, replacing a chaotic structure that inflates costs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the back foot over popular opposition to his bid to make it easier to buy farmland for industry, made passing the less controversial Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill his main objective in the session.
But the opposition Congress party Modi defeated in a general election last year seems determined not to give him any major victory ahead of his annual Independence Day speech on Saturday, not even support for a bill it originally wrote while in office. Congress members stormed the well of the upper house of parliament, where GST needs two-thirds of votes to pass, shouting “this will not go on”. A ruling party member called their behavior “hooliganism”. If GST is not approved in this session, the government could call a special sitting of parliament once it has ironed out differences.
Otherwise, it will wait until a session late in the year, leaving little time to implement the tax by a deadline of April 2016. Delays to GST and other reforms Modi is pursuing in land and labour risk slowing an economic recovery, but are par for the course in India’s unwieldy democracy. “Everyone has managed for years without GST,” said R C Bhargava, the veteran chairman of Maruti Suzuki. “If there is a further delay of maximum one year, it is not as if an investment will become unviable because of that.” — Agencies