On FDI in retail Members Cross Sword
The UPA Government may have won the vote in the Lok Sabha but the numbers clearly indicate that the Congress-led government at the Centre, totaling only 253 has lost its majority and that the “victory” has come from political management, manipulation and possibly arm-twisting of regional parties like the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati.
Both the UP parties, while abusing FDI in multi brand retail on the floor of the Lok Sabha and detailing how it is anti-people, anti-farmers and anti-small traders and retailers and the kirana store, bailed out the government by walking out before the vote bringing the figure of the house to 501 where 251 is required for the half way mark. Together the SP with 22 members and the BSP with 21 members made up a figure of 43 MPs, which helped the government register a win when the house voted.
While the Union Minister for Commerce Anand Sharma had little by way of facts to defend the government in its decision to bring FDI particularly as it violated the assurance given by Pranab Mukherjee that there would be consultation and unless there was a consensus, the government would not move forward but despite that the Prime Minister decided to ignore that commitment and move fast saying he was going ahead with reforms and if he had to go, he would go down fighting.
Interestingly, during the debate in the Lok Sabha the government got hammered from all sides on the issue of FDI in multi brand retail. Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj said that out of the 18 parties, 14 spoke against FDI and said they did not want it. She said that if the numbers were calculated on the basis of who spoke what, those opposing FDI was 282, which she said clearly showed which way the wind was blowing.
Sushma Swaraj said that in the case of SP and BSP it was FDI Versus CBI and that the government was using the CBI and government machinery and manipulation to ensure that the two UP parties toed the line and bailed out the government.
Coming out of the house after the walkout with his band of 22 MPs, Mulayam Singh Yadav said they walked out because FDI was anti-people and anti-farmer and when asked why he did not vote against the government, he said he did not want to be seen voting along with the BJP.
It was the same Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party which bailed out the Manmohan Singh Government on the issue of the nuclear deal where its MPs voted for the government when the left quit the UPA I coalition on the issue of the Prime Minister signing the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. The SP got little in terms of its effort and could not find a place in the government nor any ministerships.
There is a perception that when push comes to shove, Mulayam Singh Yadav may scream and shout but he would not go against the USA, as first the nuclear deal and then FDI are being pushed by the United States and the strong lobbies it controls.
Within the Congress party also there are murmurings of dissent with leaders and MPs expressing surprise over Sonia Gandhi pushing for FDI, though the Prime Minister’s commitment to the USA is by now well known and well documented.
Even as Sushma Swaraj made it repeatedly clear that the vote on FDI was not a communal versus secular vote but a vote to save the 20 crore farmers and traders, the Janata Dal (S) and its leader Deve Gowda voted against the government on the grounds that the FDI was anti-farmer.
With the Rajya Sabha set to take up the FDI debate, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal nath has asked the BSP to vote with the government since it is difficult to make up the numbers in the upper house without either of the two UP parties voting with the government and the other walking out.
While it may look odd that a political party can take one stand in one house and another in the other house, it is quite possible that Mayawati or even Mulayam can do this as they are not governed by the rules which apply to other parties.
In the recent past the the Trinamool Congress had done the same thing. They had supported the Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha and opposed it in the Rajya Sabha. For regional parties to base their stand on expediency is certainly not new.
But the Rajya Sabha may face further disruptions over Mayawati demanding quota in promotion for SCs while Mulayam is opposing this tooth and nail. It is being alleged by the BJP that the government which is unsure of its numbers in the Rajya Sabha is engineering the protests as the Rajya Sabha has been continuously disrupted and not allowed to function over this issue. The protests are likely to be carried forward during the discussion on the FDI also.
Mulayam Singh Yadav’s contention was that FDI will hurt the Indian farmer. In his speech, Yadav appealed to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, “There is Gandhi in your name…remember what he said…you are forgetting Swadeshi and getting in videshi.” He also took on the government’s first speaker Kapil Sibal for saying that FDI would be introduced only in 53 cities that had a population over 10 lakh. “If you are convinced that this policy will help the people, why introduce it only towns with population over 10 lakh? It is because these big global supermarkets do not want to go to smaller towns where they won’t be able to earn as much,” Yadav said to thumping from anti-FDI sections in the Lok Sabha.
The BJP’s Sushma Swaraj led that brigade on the first day of the discussion on FDI. The Leader of Opposition initiated the debate, slamming the government for what she said was a policy that would hurt small retailers and for not building a political consensus despite promising to take along all parties on the major reform.
She said, “Farmers are forced to throw their potatoes away while McDonald’s imports the potatoes it uses,” and ended her fiery argument, replete with political jibes at the Congress and its top leadership, by saying: “We don’t want to win by defeating you, we want to win by convincing you.”
Sibal countered Swaraj’s accusations point by point, saying FDI would be introduced only in 18 states and state governments could choose whether or not to implement it. Accusing the Opposition of exaggerating the evils of FDI, he said it had no right to force its Opposition on chief ministers who wanted to implement FDI in retail.
Both speakers accused the other’s party of changing their stand. While Sushma Swaraj asked why “the PM’s viewpoint on FDI had changed,” Kapil Sibal said, “In 2004, the BJP said in its vision document that it supported FDI in retail…Now that you are not in power, you have changed your stance.”
Interrupted by angry interjections, they set the tone for a heated debate, one that has already seen Saugata Roy of the Trinamool Congress warn that big retailers, “will come as traders and end up as kings,” as allusion to British rule in India. As Swaraj ended her speech she turned to the BSP and Samajwadi Party benches in the Lok Sabha and made a direct appeal saying, “If the government does not take the decision back, then I appeal to my colleagues here, vote with us and defeat FDI. The government will not fall if they lose the vote.”
The government, which has managed to convince all UPA partners, including the DMK, to stand by it in tomorrow’s vote, has been kept guessing by the SP and BSP, which provide external support to it, on which way they will vote. Swaraj was alluding to the fact that these parties, especially the SP, have spoken against FDI in retail outside Parliament, but have hinted that they might bail out the government to keep the BJP at bay. But while SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav was non-committal yesterday, his brother and party colleague Ram Gopal Yadav said before the debate , “The Samajwadi Party is of the opinion that FDI is completely against the welfare of small traders”, adding, “Voting with the BJP may not be a consideration. The Left is also against FDI but both parties’ policies are poles apart.” The government is said to be counting on the SP to abstain or walk out, either way not voting against it.
The BSP, too, has played hard to get, with party chief Mayawati indicating that her vote on FDI is linked to the passing of a bill that provides reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in promotions for government jobs. The BSP reportedly wanted the quota bill to be passed first, and the government had duly listed it in the Rajya Sabha today. Only, the SP, which is opposed to the quota bill, did not let the Upper House function. The Rajya Sabha was adjourned for the day. As it grapples with that knot, the Manmohan Singh government wore its confident face with Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath saying, “The government is confident that the BJP’s motion against FDI will be rejected in both Houses of Parliament.”
Mayawati’s BSP could abstain or, if satisfied with the government’s intention on the quota Bill, even vote in favour of it, the government’s floor managers reckon. She said that keeping “communal forces” at bay was a priority, indicating that she would not vote on the same side as the BJP. “Without seeing the results, we cannot currently support the policy to introduce FDI in retail. We will decide about voting on the floor of the House as we don’t want to stand by communal parties,” Ms Mayawati said.
If the BSP and SP both abstain in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, the majority mark will come down from 273 to 251. The Congress and its UPA allies have 261 MPs. Anti-FDI MPs add up to 219. The motion will be put to vote in the Lok Sabha tomorrow. The Rajya Sabha will begin debating the issue on Thursday and will vote on Friday.
In the Rajya Sabha, the government is in a distinct minority and will need more active support from the SP and the BSP. The Upper House has a strength of 244. Along with its allies, the UPA has a strength of 94 members. The 10 nominated members may go ahead to vote with the government. Among the seven Independents, three or four may support the government. Still, the ruling coalition may have to persuade outside supporters BSP (15) and SP (9) to vote with the government. The government is said to be talking to smaller groups too in the Rajya Sabha to make up numbers.
The government has managed to consolidate the support of its UPA allies, including the DMK, ahead of the FDI vote, but some Congressmen from the Telangana region in Andhra Pradesh have chosen to send ominous signals hours before the crucial debate begins in the Lok Sabha. Nine Telangana MPs, including minister Jaipal Reddy, boycotted a meeting with Kamal Nath this morning. The MPs have not made it clear yet if they plan to abstain during the vote; sources said they are upset that the Telangana issue is being overlooked. If they do abstain, they will be defying a Congress whip for all members to be present during the debate and vote.
The entire BJP-led NDA has closed ranks in opposing the FDI decision. “We will strongly oppose FDI in both houses. In Lok Sabha, the debate will be initiated by Sushma Swaraj and our senior leader MM Joshi will intervene. In Rajya Sabha, the debate will be initiated by Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu will intervene,” BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said after the party’s parliamentary party meet today.
The Left parties, AIADMK, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and some other parties have also made their intent to vote against the government clear. Despite that, the Prime Minister reached out to the AIADMK yesterday and asked it to reconsider its opposition to the policy in national interest. The AIADMK rules Tamil Nadu with its chief J Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister.
Within the government there is worry over the dwindling numbers and the fact that the government is not able to find new parties to add up the numbers. With an increasingly belligerent BJP snapping at the government at every turn, the government managers have their hands full in keeping the government out of harm’s way.
By Renu Mittal