South Asia

India cabinet minister breaks his parliamentary silence

MK Alagiri
Image caption Mr Alagiri is in charge of a multi-million dollar budget

An Indian cabinet minister - unable to speak English or Hindi - has for the first time managed to answer a question in parliament.

Chemicals and Fertilisers Minister MK Alagiri's first words were: "Question number 161. A statement A to E is laid on the table of the house."

The MP for the Madurai seat in India's southern Tamil Nadu state gave a prepared answer in faltering English.

The Tamil-speaker is not allowed to use his mother tongue in the chamber.

Mr Alagiri's supporters argue that he is discriminated against because he is only allowed to speak English or Hindi in parliament.

But his detractors say he should not occupy such a high-profile position - with a multi-million dollar budget - if he cannot communicate with officials and contemporaries.

The minister's first words in parliament since the Congress party-led coalition was elected 15 months ago were said in slightly stuttering, unconfident English.

Mr Algirai was answering a question about research and development in the pharmaceutical industry.

He replied in the same way when the second question put to him.

Influential father

Parliamentary rules in India allow MPs to submit their questions in advance to ministers, permitting them to give a written reply prepared by civil servants.

But he or she is also expected to answer supplementary questions.

And on Thursday Mr Alagiri unsurprisingly chose not to take further questions - his junior minister Srikant Jena took over from him.

Critics say that he owes his position to his influential father, M Karunanidhi, who is chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

His DMK party is one of the important allies in the ruling coalition.

Image caption The Indian parliament is not a place for the faint-hearted or unconfident

Such clout ensured that Mr Alagiri was rewarded with an important portfolio, even though he is a "first time" MP.

The parliamentary website says that he is a graduate and a social worker.

In parliament members are allowed to ask questions in any of 22 national languages. But ministers are only allowed to talk in Hindi or English - described as "official" languages.

It is believed the minister avoided parliament for so long because on an earlier occasion he was irked by the refusal of the speaker to allow him to speak in Tamil.

His absence during question hour is reported to have caused huge embarrassment to the treasury benches.

Opposition parties raised this issue on many occasions and sections of the media ridiculed the minister.

To break the ice, speaker Meira Kumar came up with an innovative solution.

The minister would reply to the main question by reading it out in English while his deputy would answer any "supplementaries".

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