Friends in need

Print edition : December 28, 2012

Manoeuvring by the Congress and the blow hot, blow cold approach of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party see the government through on the vote on FDI in multi-brand retail.

in New Delhi

Kamal Nath, Parliamentary Affairs Minister, after the vote on FDI in multi-brand retail on December 5.-KAMAL SINGH/PTI

WHO COULD HAVE IMAGINED THE SAMAJWADI PARTY (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), arch rivals in Uttar Pradesh, would share a platform in the Lok Sabha on the issue of foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail? Along with the Left parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), S.P. chief Mulayam Singh Yadav had supported the Bharat bandh held on September 20 against the Centres decision to allow FDI in multi-brand retail trade. And even though during the debate in the Lok Sabha on December 4-5 he urged both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi not to push ahead with the decision as it would ruin the lives of farmers and small traders, when it came to the crunch his party helped the UPA win the vote on the issue by staging a walkout.

The BSP, which has all along opposed FDI in retail, went a step ahead. Not only did the party walk out from the Lok Sabha, helping the government win the vote, but it decided to vote in favour of the decision in the Rajya Sabha. Its leader Mayawati explained that the change of heart was because the States had been given the freedom to make their own decision. She stressed that she wanted to rob the BJP of a chance to destabilise the government.

Behind-the-scenes handling of the situation by both the Prime Minister and the Congress president made this political coup of sorts possible. The debate on FDI in multi-brand retail saw the Congress partys manoeuvring skill at its best. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a Congress ally which had declared its opposition to the decision saying the party would not allow FDI in retail in Tamil Nadu, voted with the Congress. You are our partner and we will not embarrass you, party leader M. Karunanidhi was quoted as saying.

The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), another ally of the Congress, while having its own reservations about the policy, too supported it. Party leader Praful Patel said it would not support FDI in retail in Maharashtra but would side with the Congress in Parliament.

Kapil Sibal, Communications and Information Technology Minister, after the BJP-led motion was defeated.-RAJEEV BHATT

If one goes by the speeches delivered in Parliament, 282 MPs had expressed their opinion against the governments decision. Yet the government won the vote in the Lok Sabha, with 253 voting for the government decision and 218 voting against it in a House with 543 voting members. The total number in favour of the governments decision was below the halfway mark in the Lok Sabha, that is 272, but technically the halfway mark had come down to 251 because of the walkout by 43 members of the S.P. (22) and the BSP (21).

Though BJP leader Sushma Swaraj alluded to the role of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in forcing the S.P. and the BSP to do what they did, the Congress, in fact, had left nothing to chance. There was much more to the behaviour of the S.P. and the BSP than just the fear of the CBI.

We worked really hard for it. Senior leaders had been in touch with all our supporting parties. Both the Congress president and the Prime Minister personally spoke to some of our key allies, said a senior Congress leader. According to senior Congress leaders, in the case of the S.P. and the BSP at least, Sonia Gandhi herself had taken the initiative to speak to the two leaders.

Jairam Ramesh, Rural Development Minister, in Parliament House on December 6.-KAMAL SINGH/PTI

Having gone this far on this issue, even going to the extent of putting our government at stake, we had to ensure that the vote went in our favour, said a senior Congress leader. But since this was not a money Bill and would not have caused the government to fall, what was the worry?

A game changer?

FDI in multi-brand retail trade is going to be a key issue for us in the 2014 general elections. It will be a game changer like the MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act], the farm loan waiver, and the RTI [Right to Information Act] for UPA-I. We could not afford to face any embarrassment on this issue. Even if the governments defeat in Parliament would not have meant the fall of the government, it would have put a lot of moral pressure on us not to go ahead with the decision. Besides, it would have given the BJP the opportunity to say that since the government had lost the moral right, it should resign. It would have had a cascading demoralising effect, said Shakeel Ahmad, a senior Congress leader.

We are approaching the 2014 elections with three crucial talking points: FDI in retail, food security and direct cash transfer. We are of the opinion that these three will turn the peoples mood in our favour, he added.

If sources in the party are to be believed, there was a lot of hard bargaining. Mayawati apparently bartered her support for a favourable decision on the issue of granting reservation to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in promotions. The S.Ps support hinges on a quid pro quo in the 2014 elections. The party is eyeing a bigger role for itself in 2014, but this will only be possible with the cooperation of the Congress, and hence the blow hot, blow cold attitude of the partys supremo, Mulayam Singh Yadav. Besides, he cannot afford to be seen as sharing a platform with the BJP, no matter what, for fear of loss of the support of Muslims, who constitute a significant 20-22 per cent of the population in Uttar Pradesh.

ANAND SHARMA, MINISTER for Commerce and Industry. The debate on FDI in multi-brand retail saw the Congress party's manoeuvring skill at its best.-RAJEEV BHATT

While the Prime Minister and the Congress president handled the S.P. and the BSP, senior Congress Ministers such as Sushilkumar Shinde, Kamal Nath, Jairam Ramesh and Kapil Sibal, besides Ahmad Patel, Sonia Gandhis political adviser, were in touch with other parties. Though there was no formal meeting with our allies on this issue, various senior Ministers and other leaders were in touch with them depending upon who shared a good rapport with whom. It was a long and continuous process, said a Congress functionary.

But despite all their networking skills, the support for the government in the Lok Sabha fell way below the halfway mark. This has emerged as a matter of concern for the partys strategists. With 43 members walking out, the UPA succeeded in defeating the opposition motion. Of 471 MPs present and voting in the Lok Sabha, 253 voted in favour of the government decision and 218 against it. Soon after, the House rejected the Trinamool Congress motion against an amendment to the rules notified by the Reserve Bank under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) required to facilitate FDI in multi-brand retail. While 254 voted in favour of the government, 224 voted against it. As many as 478 MPs were present and voting for the FEMA motion at the time.

Until the time of writing, the identity of those who either abstained or did not participate in the voting for other reasons has not been ascertained. But what is worrying the Congress is whether some of its own MPs had ditched it. MPs from the Telangana region in Andhra Pradesh, for example, are known to be unhappy with the party high command for ignoring the statehood issue. Seven of them had not attended the parliamentary party meeting on December 3. It is not yet clear whether all of them participated in the voting.

CONGRESS PRESIDENT SONIA GANDHI and general secretary Rahul Gandhi at the party's FDI rally at Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on November 4. The party will be approaching the 2014 elections with three crucial talking points: FDI in retail, food security and direct cash transfer.-MANVENDER VASHIST/PTI

Despite the truncated victory, the party is all set to move forward with its other two schemes: food security and direct cash transfer, both of which are likely to attract strident criticism. By the time the Lok Sabha elections approach, we will have some results to show on all these issues, so there is no question of going back on either of them now. We had our reasons for agreeing to a vote on the FDI issue despite the obvious opposition to it. Now that we have overcome that obstacle, the rest of the journey will comparatively be easy, said a Congress leader.

Congress leaders can for the time being pat their own backs for a job well done, but whether this will really have a positive outcome for the people is yet to be seen.

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