NEW DELHI – After a five-month absence, Indian lawmakers returned to Parliament on Monday with the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, the nosediving economy and simmering tensions with China setting the stage for a turbulent session.
The 18-day session comes as coronavirus infections in India surge faster than anywhere else in the world. The more than 92,000 new cases added Monday raised India's totals past 4.8 million. More than 79,700 people have died.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi told reporters before Parliament resumed that he hoped the session will be productive.
“Parliament session is beginning in distinct times. There’s corona and there’s duty,” Modi said.
Lawmakers will wear masks and sit in seats separated by transparent plastic sheets while in Parliament and sessions will be shortened among other health protocols to guard against the virus. Opposition parties have protested one action: the canceling of Question Hour, when lawmakers ask questions to ministers and hold them accountable for the functioning of their ministries.
The Parliament session is expected to be challenging for Modi and his government.
It includes laying out measures to revive an economy that shrank by nearly 24% in the last quarter, the most of any major country, and trying to stop a virus surge worsened by a weak and underfunded healthcare system. Other moves could be attempted to mitigate rising unemployment and solve a bitter military standoff with China, three months after their deadliest military confrontation in decades.
On Monday, Modi appealed to all political parties to stand in solidarity with soldiers guarding India’s borders even as opposition parties demanded more clarity on the government’s response in the standoff with China.
The border tensions in the cold-desert Ladakh region escalated in June to a medieval clash that killed 20 Indian soldiers. The Asian giants have accused each other of sending soldiers into rival territory and firing warning shots for the first time in 45 years, threatening a full-scale military conflict.
The foreign ministers of the two countries have agreed to deescalate the border tensions, but resolving the impasse is expected to be a long process.
Modi also said that his government will not rest until a vaccine is developed to fight the coronavirus.
But many opposition lawmakers worry that his government looks like it is not in control.
Main opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi targeted Modi over the spike in virus cases and accused the government of implementing the lockdown without a plan.
“Unplanned lockdown was the gift of one man’s ego, which led to the spread of coronavirus across the country,” Gandhi tweeted Monday.
Millions of Indians lost their jobs instantly and tens of thousands of migrant workers, out of money and fearing starvation, poured out of cities and headed back to villages when Modi ordered the nationwide lockdown on March 24.
The unprecedented migration not only hollowed out India’s economy but also spread the virus to the far reaches of the country. Restrictions were eased since to revive the economy, even as virus cases grew.
In his tweet, Gandhi also referred to a video Modi shared last month on Instagram where he was strolling with peacocks at his residence.
Gandhi said the people of India have to “save their own lives because PM is busy with peacocks.”