Stormy start to Indian parliament's last session before election

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India's parliament opened its last session before a general election on Wednesday only to adjourn after a few hours of rowdy debate over the creation of a new state, with the pressing issue of corruption pushed into the background.

The session, which will go through to Feb 21, is seen as a final chance for the ruling Congress Party to convince voters it is taking action on graft and to showcase the resolve of leader Rahul Gandhi.

After 10 years in power, the popularity of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by Congress, has sagged in large part over a series of graft scandals as well as its inability to halt a slide in the economy.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calls it a lame duck government that is merely making a last-ditch attempt to shore up support. It should leave decisions to the next government, BJP leaders say.

On the eve of parliament's reopening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to all parties to help push through legislation.

But as the session quickly descended into a shouting match, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram acknowledged that might be a forlorn hope.

"I doubt whether it will pass any law. We've to go through the ritual of attending parliament every day and coming back empty handed," Mr Chidambaram said on Twitter.

The world's largest democracy must hold a parliamentary election by May and the date is expected to be announced round about the close of the session.

The bills due to come up for debate in the session cover issues that Gandhi, the fourth generation member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that leads Congress, has championed, including women's empowerment and graft.

But it may be too little, too late.

Opinion polls put the BJP, a conservative Hindu nationalist party spearheaded by Narendra Modi, ahead of Congress.

The newly formed Aam Aadmi, or Common Man, Party (AAP), which campaigns against corruption and took power in the capital Delhi in local elections in December, could draw voters away from either one while a number of smaller parties are discussing the formation of a "Third Front".

Dr Chandan Mitra, a BJP upper house member, said parliament should not be rushed into passing bills without due scrutiny.

"There is no obligation on the part of the opposition to allow Mr Rahul Gandhi to get his agenda pushed though," Dr Mitra told Reuters. "The government is trying to end this term on a high, but we don't want to give them an easy ride."

Congress will try to push through 39 bills, including six anti-corruption bills, to address public anger over graft. They address issues such as protection for whistleblowers and corruption in the judiciary. It will also try to pass an interim budget expected to contain pre-election sops for voters.

But wrangling over the creation of a new southern state derailed other matters when the session began, despite speaker Meira Kumar's appeals for calm. The new state, Telangana, would be carved out of Andhra Pradesh and should generate vote-winning support for Congress.

Members of parliament from Andhra Pradesh crowded around the rostrum of the chamber to denounce the proposed split, some carrying placards saying "Hail United Andhra Pradesh".

Also on the slate is a bill on reserving a bloc of parliamentary seats for women - reflecting the growing prominence of women's issues after a series of sexual assaults.

The BJP's Mitra said the interim budget was a priority.

"The interim budget will be passed as no one wants a shutdown," he said.

Politics professor Ajay Gudavarthy at Jawaharlal Nehru University said Congress hoped to use the session to present itself and Mr Gandhi as forces that can fight corruption.

"The party is trying to build an image for Rahul Gandhi. He is a bit of a non-symbol now and that is a big problem," he said.

But the party faces a struggle to make over an image tainted by graft scandals which have touched on government deals for everything from sports venues to coal mines.

"I don't think they can do this in such a short space of time. It's just a face-saving exercise, even if they do pass the bills," Prof Gudavarthy said.

Dr Mandira Kala, head of research at PRS Legislative Research, said the corruption issue should not distract attention from the economy. Once a star performer, India's growth has slowed in recent years and it is now weathering a storm in emerging markets.

"The focus might be on anti-corruption now, but when you look at what the economy needs there are a lot of bills that are not being looked at," said Dr Kala, picking out a pending higher education bill and a mining bill as examples.

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