NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Two political parties withdrew support for India’s ruling Congress party on Monday to protest a controversial bill reserving one third of seats for women, possibly weakening the government’s capacity to pass laws.
The Samajwadi Party SP.L and the Rashtriya Janata Dal RJD.L, two regional parties who account for 26 seats in the 545-seat lower house of parliament, were not part of the coalition government but supported it from the outside.
While the Congress-led coalition still has a majority with 272 seats, the withdrawal gives the government less breathing room over key pending economic legislation.
The women’s bill is a test for Congress, which sees the quota as a cornerstone of its election-winning platform of inclusive growth, but which might lose some political capital needed to push economic reforms and maintain high growth.
Since winning a second term last year, Congress is already under fire over a slew of issues, including a fuel price hike announced in the February budget.
“Certainly the party will be weakened for future legislation,” said political analyst Amulya Ganguli. “The government will need every vote it can.”
Congress’s own coalition allies have shown reluctance to support the government and recently opposed the fuel price rises. Congress has so far stood firm on implementing the unpopular fuel increase aimed at cutting a 16-year-high fiscal deficit.
Championed both by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, the women’s bill had been scheduled for a vote on Monday coinciding with International Women’s Day, 14 years after it was first introduced.
It is intended to speed up women’s empowerment in a country where women lag far behind on many social and health indicators.
“We will withdraw our support to the government and continue our protests against the bill,” Lalu Prasad Yadav, the RJD leader, told reporters.
The house was repeatedly adjourned on Monday and, at one point lawmakers from the two parties rushed to the centre of the house to tear up copies of the bill. Hundreds of women activists had meanwhile gathered outside the building.
Detractors say the legislation will be passed at the expense of other disenfranchised minorities such as Muslims or lower castes, or benefit women already in privileged classes.
According to a U.N. report also released on Monday, the Asia-Pacific region ranks near the bottom on many women development issues such as political representation, impacting the growth prospects of developing nations.
Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Surojit Gupta