Indian PM heckled over reforms

Sep 23, 2012 - 09:41
  • A demonstrator, stripped to his undershirt while standing on top of a table, shouts slogans in protest before a speech by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on September 22, 2012. PHOTO/ AFP

Security men muscled away a protester who heckled Indian Premier Manmohan Singh on Saturday as he was about to deliver a speech defending contentious reforms aimed at reviving a flagging economy.

The man, identified by state media as a Supreme Court lawyer, stripped down to his undershirt and trousers, stood on a table and shouted for Singh to "roll back" the liberalisation measures.

Security men pulled the protester away and one officer placed a hand over the man's mouth to muzzle his shouts as they removed him from the international legal conference, an invitation-only event, and detained him for questioning. He was later released.

The prime minister waited for the man to be taken away before delivering his speech, in which he said India needed the reforms to restore confidence in the economy and attract much-needed foreign investment.

The government's moves, of which the boldest is allowing foreign supermarkets such as US giant Walmart to set up shop in India, have prompted nationwide protests.

Singh's speech followed his televised pitch late Friday for public support for the slew of measures -- that have cost his Congress government its parliamentary majority -- to further prise open the still inward-looking economy.

Later on Saturday, the premier met India's President Pranab Mukherjee to discuss the political situation amid speculation of a substantial cabinet reshuffle in the coming days following the resignation of six ministers belonging to the regional Trinamool Congress, which quit the coalition to protest the reforms.

Singh's government appeared in no immediate danger of collapse after the regional secular Samajwadi Party vowed to keep out of power the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its Hindu nationalist agenda.

In Friday's speech, the premier said he had acted in the national interest to stem "a loss of support in our economy" and asked for people's "trust, understanding and your cooperation" to avert a financial crisis.

"Money does not grow on trees and that is why we have made these decisions," said Singh, who turns 80 next week. "At times, we need to say 'No' to the easy option and say 'Yes' to the more difficult one."

The government last week unexpectedly revived long-delayed plans to open up the retail, aviation and broadcasting sectors to more foreign investment and reduced deficit-bloating fuel subsidies, after policy paralysis and graft scandals dimmed the outlook for India's once-booming economy.

While political opponents accused Singh of selling out the country to foreign interests, the media and business leaders on Saturday lauded him for his "straight talk" in addressing the problems facing Asia's third-largest economy.

The economy grew by just 5.5 percent in the latest financial quarter, its slowest clip in nearly three years, while ratings agencies have warned India's debt is in danger of being downgraded to junk status unless it reins in its gaping budget deficit.

"The PM's straight talk on TV and his greater effort to reach out deserve credit," said the influential Indian Express daily in an editorial.

It said the opposition had ended up looking "uncaring about the urgency of the economic troubles that loom over us".

The tabloid Mail Today went further, proclaiming: "The Dream Team is Back."

The front-page headline was a reference to Singh and his pro-market finance minister P. Chidambaram who were known as the "dream team" in the 1990s for moves to kickstart the liberalisation of the socialist-style economy.

Adi Godrej, president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said Singh had "unambiguously sent a message the government is determined to see through the reforms" to shore up the economy.

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