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Exclusive: Antony's silence on FDI indicates Sonia's nod

Last updated on: September 15, 2012 01:52 IST

A Cabinet minister tells Sheela Bhatt that Dr Manmohan Singh has taken a gamble on the FDI issue and insists that the Congress party is with the prime minister.

A K Antony, India's defence minister and a vocal opponent of the United Progressive Alliance government's centre-to-right economic decisions, did not speak when the Cabinet took the major decision of inviting Foreign Direct Investment in retail and aviation on Friday.

When the note on FDI in retail was circulated in the Cabinet, Antony kept silent and did not express any opinion.

His silence is being construed as a sign that Congress party President Sonia Gandhi and her son party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi support the important decisions. Antony is a close confidante of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

"I don't think there is any trouble for the government as far as the majority in Parliament goes," a Cabinet minister told, speaking on condition that he would not be identified by name for this report.

"No member of Parliament wants to let go of 20 months of tenure (by letting the UPA government lose its majority and provoke a mid-term election)."

According to a pre-determined plan, Cabinet ministers from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Trinamool Congress -- important constituents of the UPA -- remained absent from Friday's Cabinet meeting. They were well aware of the Cabinet's agenda.

The note on FDI in aviation was sent to Cabinet ministers on Thursday, but no note was circulated in advance -- as is customary -- to members of the Cabinet on FDI in retail.

All UPA partners were contacted before Friday's economic decisions were taken, the Cabinet minister added.

Beleaguered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has taken a gamble, the minister said, but insisted that the Congress party backs Dr Singh's decisions.

The decisions were inevitable to expand the Indian economy. If Dr Singh's gambit succeeds, the Congress party will benefit in the next election.

Interestingly, the minister felt the decisions of the last two days would help Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi because the decisions are too close to the assembly election in the state. Housewives in Gujarat will "curse" the Union government's decision of limiting six cylinders of cooking gas per year, the minister said.

If Friday's decisions are implemented well and if employment is generated in the stipulated time-frame before the 2014 general election, then it would call the Bharatiya Janata Party's bluff, the minister added.

Cabinet Ministers Antony and Vayalar Ravi, both natives of Kerala, have grudgingly gone along with Dr Singh's decisions. Kerala is so sensitive to such economic reforms that both ministers will not visit their home state for a few days until things calm down there.

"The decision to allow FDI in various sectors is essentially an economic one that could cause the party harm politically," the minister said. "But I don't think any allies will withdraw support (to the UPA government)."

One Congress minister who had several doubts on the FDI issue felt, "It is a very bad decision, but what's the option?"

When asked if these decisions could become the UPA's 'India Shining' (a reference to the National Democratic Alliance's losing poll slogan for the 2004 general election), the minister rejected the notion and said, "These decisions are taken to improve the fundamentals of the economy. Dr Singh must have thought that by not taking these decisions we are not going to be saved, so it would be better to take these decisions and pick up the challenge. At least, we won't regret we did nothing."

Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi