India's raucous parliament sets stage for 'divisive' polls

NEW DELHI (AFP) - After pepper spray, scuffles and table smashing, India's often dysfunctional parliament ended its final session before general elections in acrimony on Friday, setting the stage for a bitter poll campaign.

The Lok Sabha did at least manage to pass some legislation in its final weeks, but its most notable achievement - approval for the creation of the state of Telangana - took place out of the public eye after the live television feed was cut as tempers erupted on the floor of the house.

While Speaker Meira Kumar blamed a technical glitch, commentators said she was trying to spare parliament more embarrassment only days after an MP opposed to Telangana's creation sprayed capsicum at colleagues.

As the Lok Sabha convened at the beginning of the month after its winter recess, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath made a plea to the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to cooperate so important bills on corruption and disabled rights could be passed.

In the end, they never made it onto the statute book, victims of what was the most unproductive parliament in India's post-independence history.

In a speech before parliament on Friday, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde tried to put a gloss on its work, pointing out that a landmark food security bill had been passed last year and proclaiming that "many historic incidents happened in this session".

And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested that perhaps something good could come of the rancour of the past weeks.

"Let's hope that out of this strife, out of this tension-full atmosphere, which prevailed for some time, there will be birth of a new atmosphere of hope," Dr Singh said in his last speech to parliament.

But a more brutal assessment came from his cabinet colleague Shashi Tharoor who said the behaviour of parliamentarians had plumbed to an all-time low, a development he called "deeply disillusioning".

"The 'temple of democracy,' as Indians have long hailed their parliament, has been soiled by its own priests, and is now in desperate need of reform," he wrote for the Project Syndicate website.

Mr Hartosh Singh Bal, a veteran political commentator, said the bad blood between Congress and the BJP, who are favourites to win an election due by May, would spill over into the campaign which he predicted would be the most bitter ever known in the world's largest democracy.

"These have been (the) worst five years of India's parliamentary political history... If Jawaharlal Nehru (India's first prime minister) had come back today, he'd have been shocked and saddened," Mr Bal told AFP.

"Parliament has become a reflection of politics and it is also setting the stage for the election campaign which is obviously the most divisive political campaign in India's history."


Politicians from all sides said the public deserved better from their representatives, with BJP spokeswoman Nirmala Sitharaman acknowledging that it "doesn't augur well" for faith in parliamentary democracy.

The BJP's choice for prime minister, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, is a famously combative and fiery orator who has been giving it to his Congress rivals with both barrels in campaign speeches.

Even the normally mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is standing down at the election, has been riled by Mr Modi whom he has described as dangerous for the country.

Mr Modi is a hugely divisive figure, popular with middle-class voters who admire his economic track record in Gujarat and yet despised by many Muslims and liberals after Gujarat witnessed in 2002 some of the worst communal violence since independence.

Mr Siddharth Varadarajan, a senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, said Mr Modi's polarising personality was becoming the defining characteristic of the election.

"Unlike other campaigns, this one is so centred around one personality, Narendra Modi," he said.

Mr Varadarajan told AFP that there was also a more general coarsening of the public discourse and a decline in tolerance of different opinions that had affected other areas of life such as the arts.

"Our general public and social culture has become less tolerant," he said.

"Obviously in politics we see the worst of this."

Indian political chat shows frequently degenerate into slanging matches, with an upstart anti-corruption party further fanning the flames in recent months by denouncing the BJP and Congress in equal measure.

Mr Bal said that parties sometimes seemed to be in a permanent contest to see who could shout the loudest.

"The rhetoric has only been getting worse," he said.

"Politicians increasingly realise that using stronger language guarantees them more attention."

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