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FDI logjam: Was it a Congress ploy to stall Parliament?

November 30, 2011 14:03 IST

The question being tossed around is this: Is there a 'method in the madness' being seen in Parliament? Did the Congress choose to take the decision knowing its consequences? asks Neerja Chowdhury.

A question which is the subject of animated discussion in the Central Hall of Parliament these days is why the government chose to approve the decision to bring 51% FDI in the multi-brand retail sector at this juncture.

The decision, which was considered during UPA I but shot down by the Left parties, had been pending for years. Even Parliament's Standing Committee on Commerce, under the stewardship of Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, had rejected the idea in 2009, without any note of dissent by the UPA members, who were in a majority.

The retail sector in India, the second largest after agriculture, has been growing on its own and did not need push from outside agencies. Nor are Walmart, Tesco and other international companies going to bring in technology that the country is crying for, so as to create warehouses and cold storage!

There can be differences about the pros and cons of the decision. Even the protagonists of the move, including Congress ministers and MPs, have questioned why the government invited trouble for itself, by going in for a decision which could easily have been deferred, at least till the forthcoming assembly polls were over.

As it is, controversies have dogged the UPA's steps in recent months, and the government has found itself on the back-foot on scams, price rise and black money. And the first week of the winter session of Parliament was a complete washout. At the end of the day, not being able to run Parliament goes against the incumbent government more than the opposition.

Some argue that the Cabinet decision on retail was economics-driven, the government having been stung by criticism that has come its way of late by India Inc that a paralysis had set in the government's decision-making processes.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may have also wanted to signal the international community about his resolve to go ahead with second generation reforms. And Pranab Mukherji may want dollars to come in to improve the deteriorating position of the rupee vis a vis the dollar.

But the central question remains: Can economics really be divorced from politics? Did the grand old party of India take a decision without paying heed to its political fallout? It is difficult to imagine that a party of experienced leaders would fall into that trap. Or did those involved really not care about the political implications and looked at the issue piecemeal, ignoring the overall picture?

For a start, the decision has united the Opposition more than any other issue, even more than price rise which has agitated large sections of people. It has brought together the BJP and the Left parties. The Left has decided to support the all-India traders' bandh on Decemeber 1. Today the collaboration between the BJP and the Left is limited to floor coordination in Parliament.

The Congress calculates that after 1992, and 2002 (the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots), there cannot be a realignment of political forces, which include both the Left and the BJP. But the ways of Indian politics are strange and there is no saying what could happen, if the public anger and anguish continue to grow.

Secondly, the UPA's outside supporters, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, are on the rampage against the decision. Even if the BJP were to agree in the coming days to some kind of "via media" to allow Parliament to function, these UP parties are not likely to agree. They smell an opportunity in the forthcoming polls in UP. Mayawati has gone to town mounting a scathing attack against the Congress, with an eye on the votes of the not so inconsequential Vaish community in the state. Not to be outdone by her, Mulayam Singh Yadav has threatened to burn down Walmart if it comes to UP! As for the BJP, the trading community has traditionally been their committed vote bank.

Thirdly, some of the former NDA allies are finding themselves on the same side of the fence as the BJP. Both J Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik have condemned the decision in no uncertain terms, though the prime minister is believed to have spoken personally to several regional leaders to elicit their support.

Most important, the Congress' allies, the Trinamool Congress and the DMK have delinked themselves from the decision -- which does little for the image of the UPA, and only goes to reinforce a climate of uncertainty.

Equally serious are the rumblings from within the Congress party. As it is, a senior minister A K Antony had opposed the decision in the Cabinet meet. Kerala PCC chief Ramesh Chennithala has spoken out publicly against it and so has Haryana minister Kiran Choudhary. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The decision also comes as a setback for Rahul Gandhi's campaign in UP. It is said that Sonia Gandhi had left the decision to the prime minister and the finance minister. This is what she is believed to have conveyed to Commerce Minister Anand Sharma when he sought to see her to get her view in the matter.

At the all party meet called by Mukherji on Tuesday -- the finance minister said very little in defence of the decision -- three options emerged. One to undo the decision, two to suspend it, and three to accept an adjournment motion followed by a vote. At the time of writing, it is the third scenario the government was working on, with toned down phraseology, but a vote would undoubtedly embarrass the government, with a large section of the political spectrum against the move.

The question being tossed around is this: Is there a "method in the madness" being seen in Parliament? Did the Congress choose to take the decision knowing its consequences?

One explanation being forwarded is that the prime minister is adamant about going ahead. He is in a frame of mind akin to the determination he had displayed when he had wanted the Indo-US nuclear deal to be adopted at all costs. His detractors say that if push came to shove, he may wish to quit on the issue economic reforms, than on something like 2G, which has suddenly taken a back seat.

There are others who have begun to question whether the Congress has deliberately invited disruptions, so as not to have to pass the Lokpal Bill. It knows that the Standing Committee has come up with a version which is not going to pass muster with Team Anna, which is all set to launch another agitation.

The Congress can legitimately blame the opposition for these disruptions. Scratch the surface, and the opposition leaders are also not really keen on the Lokpal Bill, their public rhetoric notwithstanding. The present situation also suits the opposition parties to the hilt in more ways than one.

Neerja Chowdhury