The parliamentary debate on FDI in retail was expected to be a trend-setting duel between mighty minds. Leaders from 40-odd parties were meant to assert their ideological support or opposition to the government’s move to open Indian retail to marketers from abroad. But at the end of over 20 hours of debate in both houses of Parliament, none of the 56 speakers made any new point or revelation which a primary student of Indian politics and economics does not already know—it was like reissuing an old book with a new jacket, while retaining its old title. Even the main protagonists, who had made similar arguments during the last discussion on FDI few months ago, were the same.
Yet, both the BJP and the Congress were able to deliver their political messages loud and clear. It was almost after two years that the UPA could assert its authority to legislate. Meanwhile, the BJP established the minority character of the government as one holding on to power only by manipulating contradictions in Opposition ranks. It was also evident that instead of a visible dogma driving the political spectrum, some invisible and undefined ideological power was playing an important role in the FDI debate. How else can one explain the conduct of over a dozen MPs who were elected on the tickets of parties opposed to FDI? They either abstained or voted with the ruling party. For example, all those with corporate connections were ideologically convinced that FDI was beneficial for the nation. Both Rajeev Chandrasekhar, former telecom tycoon and now a media mogul, and Vijay Mallya voted with the Congress, although they won their Rajya Sabha seats from Karnataka with the help of the BJP and the Janata Dal (S). Rajkumar Dhoot, Shiv Sena member from Maharashtra and a promoter of the Videocon group, abstained. Six of the seven independent MPs also voted against the motion. Three members of the TDP, including its leader, deputy leader and chief whip—with direct or indirect corporate interests—abstained from voting in the Rajya Sabha while two of its five Lok Sabha MPs voted with the Opposition.
Except for the exceptional floor management by Manmohan Singh, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and backroom operators, the government and the Opposition wasted Parliament’s time, making vicious mutual attacks. Normally a loner, the Prime Minister himself contacted some non-Congress MPs to convince them about the merits and importance of FDI.
Otherwise, it was a flop show. At the end of the confrontationist and offensive discussion, neither the nation nor the middle-level workers in various sectors were better informed on the issue. The speakers indulged in hype and swipe rather than on the gains and pains of the sudden transition from a fully protected mom and pop store retail system in small towns to megamalls. The outcome of the whole exercise was never in doubt. The moment the government chose to call the BJP’s bluff by accepting the discussion, which required voting in both the Houses, it was clear that it had managed a comfortable majority. Only a political novice would have thought that caste- and community-based parties like the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party or Rashtriya Lok Dal would vote against the ruling alliance. All of them are fully aware of the ground reality that they win elections thanks to caste loyalties and not on economic issues like the entry of the much-demonised Wal-Mart into India. Ironically, Maya, Mulayam and Lalu spoke against the unrestricted entry of FDI.
While Lalu has been consistently supporting the government’s every legislative move, both Mulayam and Maya have saved the UPA in the past only after striking significant political deals and getting financial packages for their states. If the debate was meant to influence the outcome of the future elections, none of the parties stood to gain from their posturing in Parliament. Those who have convinced themselves that it is the stance of a political party on issues such as nuclear energy, economic reforms or FDI that gets it votes, have forgotten the massive electoral mauling the Congress received in 1989 and in 1996; the father of economic reforms, P V Narasimha Rao, was at the helm of the government and Manmohan Singh was its most visible reformer. The Congress could win in 2004 because of the sheer arrogance of a few BJP leaders who treated NDA allies like political plague. It won both the 2004 and 2009 elections because its leadership had mastered the art of coalition and could accommodate even its fiercest rivals. The Congress pulled down the Deve Gowda government in 1997 because the DMK—one of his coalition partners—was suspect in the eyes of the Jain Commission in the Rajiv assassination. In 2004, however, it welcomed the Dravidian party into its fold. Even the sins of Sharad Pawar, who had quit the Congress on the issue of Sonia’s foreign origins were forgiven; he was given a place of pride in the government, and that too on his own terms.
On the other hand, whenever all the anti-Congress forces, including the Left and BJP, have joined hands, the Congress has suffered a crushing defeat. This time, it won the battle in Parliament because the entire non-Congress opposition was united in heart, but divided physically. Unfortunately, the next government would be formed not through ideological alliances but by striking attractive deals with potential coalition partners.
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