Passage of the UPA’s flagship food security bill, a potential vote-winner, is at risk of being delayed with the BJP disrupting Parliament as it seeks the heads of two scandal-tainted ministers and key government ally Sharad Pawar demanding a full debate on the legislation.
The food bill aims to give about two-thirds of Indians, or over 800 million people, a legal right to cheap food, and is a programme pushed by ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi.
On Tuesday, food minister KV Thomas attempted to start a debate on the bill but had to give up after the BJP disrupted proceedings for yet another day.
The main Opposition party was calling for the resignation of law minister Ashwani Kumar for "interfering" with a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into a scandal over the allocation of coal blocks. It also insisted that rail minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, hit by bribery allegations centering on his nephew, quit too.
Now, all eyes are on two big events due today: a Supreme Court hearing on the CBI coal probe, which could determine the government's stand on Kumar, and election results from Karnataka, in which a strong showing from the Congress might take the wind out of the Opposition's sails.
For the food bill to become law, it is necessary that the government and the Opposition arrive at an understanding over how it will be passed. The bill has almost 70 amendments and the Opposition may potentially seek a vote on each of these. For this, members must be at their seats.
The head of the NCP, a key ally of the government, agriculture minister Pawar, said a discussion on the bill was the right way to go. Pawar has questioned the economics of the bill and the sustainability of the scheme.
With only three working days left before the ongoing budget session of Parliament concludes, hopes of the government passing the food bill, long in the making, have dimmed. It is likely to get deferred to the monsoon session of Parliament.
"We want discussions on the bill, but for that Parliament must be allowed to function. If the Opposition doesn't allow the food bill to be taken up, we have a strategy," food minister Thomas told HT.
Thomas said the government would place all facts before "the public", suggesting that the government would charge the BJP with holding up a key pro-poor, welfare legislation.
BJP general secretary Rajiv Pratap Rudy said his party would help end hunger but it first "wants to end the Congress's hunger for ill-gotten money".
Conflicting signals from the Congress and the government have not helped matters. While there were reports that an ordinance — an emergency step when a bill cannot be introduced — or a government order were being considered to make the food bill functional, a top government source told HT that both these measures were not acceptable to the Congress.
"The Congress leadership wants a food law to be passed as promised by the party," he said.