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India's opposition fails to capitalise on reforms outrage

Regional parties and the left are wary of the main opposition party, which itself seems to lack a coherent strategy.

NEW DELHI // Labelled "anti-poor" and "a fraud" by opposition parties, India's government has come under withering criticism from rivals over its economic reforms, yet they have been unable to capitalise on widespread outrage.

The reason behind this is that regional parties and the left are wary of the main opposition party, which itself seems to lack a coherent strategy.

The fragmented nature of the opposition has allowed the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to navigate his way through a potential crisis, according to analysts.

In a speech on Friday, he was defiant about the programme, which includes liberalising foreign investment in retail, increasing the diesel price and capping subsidised cooking gas, was necessary to "protect the long-term future of our people".

But Mr Singh's Congress party and its ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have been condemned by allies and rivals for these controversial new policies.

Mamata Banerjee, the head of the Trinamool Congress, pulled her party out of the alliance, accusing the government of "looting" from the poor.

Several parties from across the political landscape went on strike last week, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Samajwadi Party - the latter a UPA member - also called strikes in the states of West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh respectively. Crucially for the UPA government, these various parties failed to coordinate the strikes because they have fundamentally different agendas.

Neither the Communists, who said the reforms were a "gigantic fraud", nor Samajwadi would consider aligning themselves with the BJP, which is regarded as a party backed by Hindu nationalists.

On Friday, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of the Samajwadi Party, which offers the UPA crucial support in the arithmetic of the parliamentary majority, clarified his party's position that it was only opposing the reforms in retail and not trying to bring down the government. "Our support is clear. We will not let communal forces come to power," Mr Yadav said, referring to the BJP.

Ash Narain Roy, the director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Social Sciences, said that because of "the lack of an alternative, or the lack of a blueprint by the opposition, the UPA stands to gain in spite of the public bickering we see".

Mr Roy was particularly scathing about the BJP, saying that the party "does not have a game plan" and is indulging in oppositional rhetoric for its own sake.

He pointed out that, between 1999 and 2004, a BJP-led government had its own reputation for economic liberalisation. "Now they pretend they had nothing to do with it. If they come back to power, they will push through reforms again," Mr Roy said. "It's the mindset of: 'If I do it, it's fine, but not you'."

The opposition has also been unsuccessful in communicating the urgency of its views on liberalised retail, said Parth Shah, the director of the Centre for Civil Society, a pro-market think tank based in New Delhi. "One way to gauge this is to look at the strikes that were called, which weren't very successful," Dr Shah said. "Most states functioned normally. So either there's no broad popular opposition to these reforms."

The BJP itself seems to have recognised the limitations of its stance.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement of the reforms, reports suggested that the BJP would move a no-confidence motion against the UPA in parliament, to bring down the government.

But having realised that it would not be able to count on the left parties or the Samajwadi Party in this mission, the BJP is now attempting to press only for a rollback of the retail reform.

"It is not the job of the opposition to ensure that this government falls," Nitin Gadkari, the BJP president, said on Thursday. "We have not thought of bringing any no-confidence motion."

Instead, he said, the BJP might meet the president to request a special session of parliament, in which the new retail norms can be put to a parliamentary vote.

According to its schedule, parliament is supposed to meet next only in December, for its winter session. Also, the UPA's decision to liberalise investment in retail does not require parliamentary approval.

Both the Samajwadi Party and the Trinamool Congress have said that they will move a resolution, whenever parliament resumes, trying to prove that the UPA lacks broad political support for this reform.

But Dr Shah pointed out that the government could easily stymie this move - by, for example, requesting that the speaker of the house halt such a resolution, on the grounds that its subject does not need parliament's? approval? benediction.

Commentators have also floated the possibility of a third front - an alliance of strong regional parties built around neither the Congress nor the BJP, and headed by Mr Yadav of the Samajwadi Party.

Although such a front would not have a parliamentary majority now, its members could withdraw enough support from the UPA to force a midterm poll.

But Mr Roy said that Mr Yadav would be well aware of the problems of such an alliance. "The third front is equally divided," he said. "Everyone has their own ambitions, and how are they, in turn, going to accept Mulayam's ambitions? He cannot be king or kingmaker."


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* With additional reporting by Suryatapa Bhattacharya