Modi rivals expect ‘legislative grenades’ as India parliament opens


Special five-day session with murky agenda comes just after G20 summit

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the G20 venue in New Delhi on Sept. 9. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

NEW DELHI — A special five-day session of India’s parliament begins Monday, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi basks in the aftermath of a Group of 20 Summit in New Delhi that the ruling party has called “transformational” for the global order.

The session had been shrouded in mystery since it was announced in late August, at least until last week, when a tentative agenda was finally disclosed — after Sonia Gandhi, senior leader of the opposition Indian National Congress party, sent a letter to Modi complaining about the lack of consultation.

“None of us have any idea about its agenda,” she wrote in the letter dated Sept. 6, seeking a debate on issues such as inflation, unemployment and the “continued agony” of violence in the northeastern state of Manipur, among other matters. A parliamentary bulletin issued last Wednesday, however, said the discussions will cover “India’s parliamentary journey of 75 years” since independence, consideration of a bill on the appointment of the country’s chief election commissioner (CEC) and a few others bills, ahead of nationwide polls due early next year.

The session comes amid an increasingly jittery atmosphere in Indian politics, as both sides gear up for the elections. The Congress party and numerous others have joined forces under the banner INDIA — Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance — to challenge the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi, who is widely expected to win a third term.

Reacting to the released agenda, Jairam Ramesh, general secretary in charge of communications for the Congress party, posted on X that the Modi government finally “condescended” to announce it after “pressure” from Gandhi’s letter.

“The agenda as published at the moment, is much ado about nothing — all this could have waited till [the] winter session in November,” he wrote. “I am sure the legislative grenades are being kept up their sleeves to be unleashed at the last moment as usual. Regardless, the INDIA parties will steadfastly oppose the insidious CEC Bill.”

The bill, which would remove India’s chief justice from the selection process for election commissioners and make other changes, has riled the opposition. After the legislation was introduced in the upper house on Aug. 10, Congress lawmaker Randeep Singh Surjewala called it a “black day” for Indian democracy, alleging that the government was trying to turn the election body into the “Modi Election Commission.”

Derek O’Brien, whose Trinamool Congress party is also part of the INDIA coalition, posted on X that the parliament’s special session’s agenda came with a caveat — “not to be taken as exhaustive.”

“Dirty tricks?” he added, hinting that the government may serve up a surprise.

In recent weeks, speculation has swirled that the government intends to change the country’s name to the Hindi “Bharat” and could take it up during the special session. Both Bharat and India are mentioned in the constitution, but the government used the former in official English-language communications ahead of and during the G20 summit on Sept. 9-10.

There was also talk that the government could bring up bills on a uniform civil code, which aims to replace personal laws based on various religions and traditions with a common law; simultaneous national and state polls; and reservation of 33% seats for women in the lower house of parliament and state assemblies.

After an all-party meeting on Sunday attended by 51 leaders from 34 parties, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi told reporters that the session would begin Monday in the old colonial-era parliament building, before the proceedings move on Tuesday to a new building Modi inaugurated in May this year.

Policemen stand outside India’s new parliament building in New Delhi in May. This week’s special session is expected to start in the old building before moving to the new one.   © Reuters

From Wednesday onward, Joshi said lawmakers would conduct regular government business regarding the items already listed. “Everybody has assured their cooperation,” Joshi said.

Senior Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury separately told reporters that the opposition wants the government to pay attention to Manipur, among other things. “All opposition parties [also] demanded the passage of the women’s reservation bill” during the special session, he said referring to a bill to increase female representation in parliament.

Joshi said that “the government follows its own agenda” and that a decision on that bill would be “taken at the appropriate time.”

While parliament is in session, the government is also likely to draw attention to the country’s successful moon landing mission, Chandrayaan-3, and hosting of the G20 summit.

On Wednesday, the Modi cabinet passed a resolution hailing the success of the New Delhi G20 meeting, where members agreed on a joint declaration despite concerns that differences over the Ukraine war might make doing so impossible. “The cabinet also noted that at a time when East-West polarization was strong and the North-South divide deep, the prime minister’s endeavors created a crucial consensus on the most important issues of the day,” an official statement said.

The same day, Modi was welcomed with chants of his name and a shower of flower petals at the headquarters of the ruling BJP. The party also passed a resolution congratulating Modi for the “historic and unprecedented” success of the G20 summit.