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Why house stalemate does not suit the Congress

November 26, 2012 19:29 IST

A prolonged political stalemate does not also augur well for the government. It is caught between the devil and the deep sea -- unless its managers can somehow bring a rabbit out of the hat, in terms of the right numbers in a vote on FDI, says Neerja Chowdhury.

The government has stepped up its efforts to get its arithmetic right in the event of a vote on the contentious issue of FDI in multi-brand retail, even as the Monday all party meeting failed to break the impasse.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left, determined to embarrass the government, did not budge from their respective positions and the first three days of the winter session have been a non-starter -- like the monsoon session was over coalgate. Unless something gives, the winter session may also end up being a washout.

Though Janata Dal-United leader Sharad Yadav had in recent days expressed the hope that the winter session would be able to transact business, and he reiterated this view again on Monday, his party did not break ranks with the BJP.

The view of the Akali Dal has also been similar to that of the JD-U -- that the NDA should press for a discussion with a vote, but if the government does not relent, they should have a backup plan up their sleeve other than allowing another session to be wasted. But the Akali Dal leadership has also decided that they too would stand alongside the BJP. The issue is no longer confined to discussing the merits and demerits of FDI in multi-brand retail. It has become a political football.

The government's woes stem not so much from its opponents as from its own supporters, who are also opposed to the measure. The stand of three parties -- DMK, SP, and BSP -- which support the government, is critical. It will determine whether or not the government can risk a vote.

Since all three parties have come out against FDI in retail, they would prefer a discussion without a vote, as a vote would expose them.

The government has been trying to bring around these parties. It would be on a surer wicket even if one of these parties voted with the government and two abstained in a vote.

From all accounts, ally DMK, which has been unhappy with the Congress, is not playing ball. The Dravidian party has been cut up with the Congress on a host of issues, including the treatment meted out to Kanimozhi in the 2G case, which "the Congress High Command was not able to do anything to prevent". Many see the Congress' renewed offensive against the CAG as an attempt to placate the DMK.

Senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad dispatched to Chennai to bring around an unhappy DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, failed in his mission, though a coordination meeting of the UPA allies is being held on Tuesday, to make another attempt to break the deadlock. It seems that the DMK chief 'talked tough' with Azad -- that the Congress took decisions without consulting its partners but expected them to bail it out!

Even though the BSP and the SP have informally indicated that they could consider staging a walkout during a vote -- undoubtedly they would extract their pound of flesh for their support -- neither is a reliable entity and there is no saying what they would do at the last moment. After all, in 1999, Mayawati had decided at the last moment against bailing out the A B Vajpayee government, leading to its defeat by one vote.

The government knows it cannot afford a vote on the issue of FDI in retail unless it has got its arithmetic right. A defeat would start the countdown for the government, even though legally it does not have to step down.

A parliamentary defeat would hugely embarrass the government and make it difficult for it to go ahead with inviting FDI in multi-brand retail, even though it is empowered to take such executive decisions. It would reduce the government into a lame duck entity, robbing it of authority to govern. What is more, this would be the second time the government would be doing a flip flop on it.

There are implications of defeat for the prime minister personally. As a senior Congress leader put it, "Since this has been a pet project of Dr Manmohan Singh, it would make it untenable for the prime minister to continue in office, and that would mean the beginning of the end."

A couple of months ago, the prime minister had conveyed to the Congress leadership his inability to carry on unless he could go ahead with the agenda of economic reforms. FDI in retail and in civil aviation were among the decisions the government took, in an attempt to signal the world that it was serious about inviting investment into the country. A defeat on FDI in retail would send a negative signal to potential investors about a sovereign government's ability to carry through its decisions. The prime minister has been personally taking the initiative to bring around parties, by inviting them to lunches and dinners, but he failed to persuade the BJP leaders.

The BJP is in no mood to relent. FDI in retail is an issue which adversely affects the party's traditional vote base of small traders. And no less important, and this was pithily summed up by a senior BJP leader. "Please understand our bottom line. The BJP brass sees no reason why we should come to the aid of the Congress, giving a new spurt of life to what is now a declining force."

The party knows that the Congress hopes to pass the insurance and pension bills in the winter session of Parliament, and though, it is not averse to them in a modified form, the party leadership is in no mood to allow the Congress to take the credit for it.

There are those in the Congress who feel the party should take a clear cut stand on a discussion without a vote. The opposition, if it wanted to vote out the government, had the option of bringing a no confidence motion against it, which it chose not to back. The government, the party hawks believe, should go to the people and explain its stand, but it should not wilt under opposition pressure, which will further undermine its image and authority.

On the other hand, a prolonged political stalemate, does not also augur well for the government. It is caught between the devil and the deep sea -- unless its managers can somehow bring a rabbit out of the hat, in terms of the right numbers in a vote.

Neerja Chowdhury