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India’s Government Looks for New Support After Ally Withdraws

Activists of People’s Democratic Party shout slogans during a protest in Jammu, India, September 19, 2012.
Activists of People’s Democratic Party shout slogans during a protest in Jammu, India, September 19, 2012.
India’s Congress Party-led coalition government is trying to garner new political support after a key ally withdrew support to protest unpopular economic policies, effectively reducing the government to a minority.

Congress Party leaders are scouting for support from two regional parties, after the government's largest ally the Trinamool Congress pulled out of the ruling alliance, reducing its numbers to below the halfway mark.

But at least one of those parties, the Samajawadi Party, says its support cannot be taken for granted as the government has lost credibility. The Samajwadi Party has been supporting the government from outside, although it has not formally joined it.

The political crisis has been sparked by two unpopular decisions: allowing foreign supermarket chains to set up shop in India and a large hike in diesel prices.

The head of the Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee, says her ministers will resign Friday. She has slammed the government for “selling the country” and adopting policies she feels will be a disaster for India’s poor people.

She says she cannot tolerate these anti-people decisions.

The political backlash is not unexpected. The entry of foreign supermarket chains has long been opposed by virtually all the government’s allies and opposition parties. The critics fear this will result in closing millions of mom and pop stores.

The government says the entry of foreign retailers will draw in investment and help to revive India’s flagging economy, while higher diesel price hike will reduce the country’s growing fiscal deficit.

The government says it will not backtrack, despite the growing political storm. But some observers say the government might lower diesel prices to calm its allies.

Ambika Soni, the information and broadcasting minister, says the Congress Party will continue to reach out to the Trinammol Congress and explain why these measures had to be adopted. She says the government is stable.

But opposition parties and allies have sharpened their attack on the government. The government’s former ally, the Trinamool Congress, has called for the prime minister’s resignation. Some other parties want the government to seek a vote of confidence in parliament.

“This means that today in parliament, a majority of the parties and members of parliament are against opening of multi-brand retail trade," said Prakash Karat, a senior leader of the Communist Party of India. "Therefore, this government has no mandate or right to proceed.”

Political analysts say there is no immediate risk to the government’s survival because parliament will not meet until December. But an early election cannot be ruled out as the political opposition to the economic reforms is expected to gather steam in the days and weeks ahead.