PM's hard talk on FDI cuts no ice

Last Updated: Tue, Nov 29, 2011 19:20 hrs

Opposition firm on its demand for FDI decision reversal, even as PM asks dissenters to fall in line.

The political crisis over foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector showed no sign of ebbing, even as another day was wasted in Parliament. An assertive Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered nay-sayers in the government to fall in line and party managers ruled out any compromise on the policy.

A meeting of the Congress MPs is likely to be addressed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee tomorrow to provide further ballast to the government and reassure those apprehensive about the move. But the biggest task at hand for the government is to get the Opposition to change its position. The Opposition has been firm in its demand that the government reverse the FDI decision or face disruption in Parliament or an adjournment motion.

Recognising it could ill-afford a washout of the winter session, the government was engaged in hectic behind-the-scenes activity to persuade, placate, cajole and threaten the Opposition.

One compromise on offer was to yield to the Opposition demand of an adjournment motion, but so worded that no censure of the government was implied. That could take time to be hammered out, and with a long weekend (including a government holiday) ahead, Parliament is likely to resume normal work only on December 7 — subject to both sides agreeing on a formula. Several Opposition leaders said they would not let Parliament function in the intervening period.

But the office of Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Bansal said discussions were on and if all parties cooperated, a breakthrough would emerge even on Thursday.

Amid all this scrambling, the prime minister showed his claws on Tuesday, but not in Parliament. Speaking at the Youth Congress meeting (the choice of venue sent its own message to non-believers in the Congress), he said people were not correctly informed about the benefits of FDI in retail. It was not an off-the-cuff hasty decision of the government, he said, tearing into the Opposition for wasting the Parliament time and denigrating the prestige of the country. Singh said FDI in retail would “reduce the differential between wholesale and retail prices and consumers would get commodities of daily use at reduced prices.” He also said those states that did not want foreign investment need not have it, that was up to the state governments. He added there was enough evidence to suggest that both big and small retailers could easily co-exist in a big country like India.

Even as the PM was making this statement, Rajasthan Chief Minister and Congress leader Ashok Gehlot announced in Jaipur that his state would review the FDI policy with a view on what its impact would be on traders. As of now, no city in Orissa qualifies for foreign investment, but the ruling Biju Janata Dal made its opposition of the policy clear by saying it was not going to implement the policy.

At the all-party meeting, a shade of difference emerged in the Opposition’s stand. While the Left parties demanded a reversal, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the government should either agree to an adjournment motion on the Opposition’s terms (which, if carried, could lead to a major embarrassment for the government, possibly even its resignation); or just reverse the policy, which would mean Parliament would begin work on its agenda immediately.

After the all-party meeting, Mukherjee held discussions with the PM and told the Opposition he would revert to them with the government’s view. Till late in the evening, he was still to come back to Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj. This led her to declare that it was the government, and not the Opposition, that was wasting time and contributing to Parliament disruption.

Meanwhile, sensing a window of opportunity, the government has immediately begun work on a motion that would be acceptable to the Opposition. The jury is still out on whether the breach will be filled. The final weapon in the Opposition’s arsenal is a no-confidence motion, that could be moved on December 7, if no solution emerges by then. National Democratic Alliance leaders said internal agreement on this was yet to firm up. The functioning of Parliament would stay blocked by the Opposition till an agreement emerged.

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