India's Congress stalls parliament over government's Gandhi 'vendetta'

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has been accused by the opposition of pursuing a "vendetta" against the Gandhi family.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has been accused by the opposition of pursuing a "vendetta" against the Gandhi family. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's main opposition Congress party stormed the floors of parliament on Tuesday (Dec 8) and accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government of pursuing a"vendetta" against the Gandhi family, in a fresh blow to hopes of passing a crucial tax reform.

The government wants to introduce a nationwide goods and services tax (GST) to replace a long list of state levies, in a bid to boost investment by making it easier to do business in India's vast internal market.

Modi needs opposition support to pass the reform in parliament's upper house, where his party lacks a majority. Hopes were raised for the long-delayed legislation to be passed this year after Modi met Congress president Sonia Gandhi last month and both parties showed signs of compromise.

But the sides were at loggerheads again on Monday, after a judge ordered Gandhi and her son Rahul to appear in court in a case brought by a prominent member of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.

On Tuesday, furious Congress members occupied the floors of parliament to protest against the case. Modi has moved to weaken the legacy of the Gandhi dynasty since dislodging them from power last year.

"I am not scared of anyone," a defiant Sonia Gandhi told journalists in parliament.

Parliament was adjourned until Wednesday following the uproar, but Congress workers carried their protests into the streets, including shouting slogans from the top of a bus. "The GST Bill has gone for a sky walk," Anand Sharma, the Congress party's deputy leader in the upper house, told Reuters, indicating swift passage of the measure was unlikely.

Another senior Congress leader said disruptions in parliament would continue, but did not say for how long.

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty ruled India for most of its post-independence era after 1947 and helped shape the country's institutions. Detractors, including Modi, accuse the family of holding back economic development with socialist policies.

The case, brought by BJP member Subramanian Swamy, alleges the Gandhis used US$13.5 million (S$19 million) of party funds to pay debts accrued by a newspaper business. The Gandhis deny wrongdoing.

Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a Congress spokesman and lawyer for the Gandhis, said they were willing to appear in court, but sought more time. The court will hear the case on Dec 19.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the government had no role in the case, adding that the Gandhis could explain their concerns in court but their party should not disrupt parliament.

"All parties must come together (on GST)," Jaitley told broadcaster Times Now. "Anybody who tries to create hurdles in passing that GST will be doing great damage to this country."