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Pass the Bill

The stand-off between the government and the Opposition over the proposed changes in the insurance law will not be easy to resolve. It is worth remembering, first, exactly why the amendment to the existing law is important. It is not only an important signal, indicating that previously stuck reforms are now being passed. It is also important in real and financial terms. Reform of the insurance sector, particularly openness to foreign funds, is necessary to extend the pool of capital available. And the long-term capital that insurance-sector liberalisation attracts is crucial for India to mobilise funds for increasing investment in infrastructure – one of the key priorities if growth is to be revived. Yet the amendment Bill has long been held up, through cynical politics being played by both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). When the BJP was in power, prior to 2004, the Congress opposed raising the cap on foreign equity in Indian insurance companies. Once the Congress came into power, it was magically convinced of the need to raise the cap; however the BJP, equally magically, discovered that raising the cap would be a disaster. Now that the Congress is back on the Opposition benches in the Lok Sabha, it is once again balking at passing the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, where it has more seats than the BJP and its allies.

Both the BJP and the Congress should rethink. The Congress’ advocacy of this reform – and of such matters as the goods and services tax, for example – is recent enough that its refusal to pass the reform now will be seen as clear hypocrisy. And the BJP was being obdurate and stubborn recently enough to remember that parties in government can be easily stymied by a recalcitrant Opposition. It should know that the government has to go the extra mile to placate or bargain with the Opposition to get important reforms through. The proposed amendments to the insurance legislation are only one of several much-needed laws that the BJP will have to steer through the Rajya Sabha. It had better show that it is willing to both bargain and to be tough.

The Congress, perhaps recognising that its stand shows it to be completely hypocritical, is hastening to assure listeners that it still views the Bill as “its baby” and agrees with it in principle. In demanding that the Bill be sent to a select committee rather than debated and voted on by the House, it is being cynical and clever. The BJP would have been happy to force the Congress to vote against the Bill, demonstrating its hypocrisy, and then to take the Bill to a joint session of Parliament, where its numbers in the Lok Sabha would force the Bill through. The Congress has skilfully manoeuvred to avoid this. It is also right that some of the changes made to the Congress’ version of the Bill are more than cosmetic. Greater restrictions have been placed on foreign insurers and re-insurers. Some of this may be unwise. But instead of discussing these changes in a select committee, the whole Rajya Sabha could, and should, discuss and amend the Bill if necessary. This may be politically inconvenient for the Congress; but both the Opposition and the government must co-operate to pass this important law.

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