As things stand on Saturday, the government seems to have lurched from a crisis created out of inaction to one brought about by hyperactivity. The diatribe against Coalgate has given way to trenchant opposition to FDI in retail, preceded by a never-before diesel hike - that is bound to impact the small and marginal farmers as well as the middle class. While the mom and pop store owners are significant voters in every state, the economic benefits of retail reform would take long to be felt, except for the immediate relief it would be bring to debt-ridden Indian retailers looking for foreign investment and the banks who have given them massive loans.
Allies worried about the political impact of Manmohanomics on their home turf have been instantly forced into an adversarial corner. What began as a 72-hour deadline for a rollback set by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Friday, turned into a chorus. Crucial UPA props such as BSP chief Mayawati and UP’s Samajawadi Party Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav called frenetic press conferences to protest against the “aniti-people, anti-farmer’’ move. Not to mention the quick distancing done by Congress’ Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who made it clear that FDI in retail was not for “a state like Kerala”.
The Congress may want this to be perceived as mere posturing and rhetoric. But both the basic stock and the buffer stock of support seem to be in serious danger of vanishing. The Trinamool—which has threatened to withdraw support—has 19 MPs in the Lok Sabha. The SP and the BSP, which support the UPA from outside, have 22 and 21 MPs respectively. Even the DMK is making noises, although it’s in no position to rock the UPA boat. So M. Karunanidhi, while unambiguously opposing the diesel price hike, conveniently lobbed the FDI ball in Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s court. Congress political managers, like West Bengal party in-charge Shakeel Ahmed and UP leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi, are insisting that these parties may take to the streets in protest but will not go to the edge by withdrawing support to the Congress. However, as it has happened in the past, once the allies take an oppositional stance, it takes on a political momentum of its own.
Only the NCP and the three-MP National Conference are standing solidly behind the government. Congress spokespersons, instead of citing Congress state chief ministers, are hanging on to J&K CM Omar Abdullah’s tweet: “Why should Mamata or Akhilesh decide what is good or bad for Kashmir?” Maharashtra’s Prithviraj Chavan, a former Manmohan aide, is the only Congress CM who bats for the new slew of reforms. Besides J&K, Congress-ruled states like Haryana,
Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra will also be keen on implementing FDI in retail.
Asked whether the campaign by Union ministers against Coalgate was succeeding, an AICC state-in-charge who travelled with them to two states said: “Bahut kuchh karna padega (a lot needs to be done)”, an admission that a lot of damage has been already done. Curiously, chief ministers and PCC chiefs have mostly stayed away from this campaign. The Congress does not see any clear electoral success in sight, whether in Gujarat or Himachal or in the next round of state polls. It is perhaps because of this feedback that the pro-Welfare, Left leaning party leadership prodded the Prime Minister to aggressively pursue reform economics in the hope that the backing of at least corporates and opinion-makers is ensured.
The irony is that Congress also clearly wants to avoid as much of the reforms “taint” as possible. It did not even hold a core committee meeting prior to the announcement to endorse what P.C. Chacko called “unpleasant decisions, reluctantly taken”. The last sounding board, instead, was the CCPA meeting chaired by the PM (where the diesel price hike was approved).
In spite of the sudden booster thrust, the feeling of political isolation has only deepened. The UPA’s image managers have a new battle on their hands. Commerce minister Anand Sharma goes to the heart of coal country, Chhattisgarh, in two days. It will be interesting to see him battle not just Coalgate but also bat for FDI in retail as a key architect of the policy, in a BJP-ruled state that has rejected the idea.
- Sunday Standard