A week ahead of the winter session of Parliament, CPM leader Basudev Acharia set the opposition's agenda: a debate in Lok Sabha with a provision of voting on the politically contentious FDI in multi-brand retail.
It is rare that any Left Front leader would set the agenda in this fashion. More notices on the subject from other opposition parties are sure to follow in the days to come, all under Rule 184, which makes voting mandatory at the end of the debate. Similar notices will go to the chairman of Rajya Sabha.
Prime Minister Manmohan singh and his core strategists may have been buoyed by the open public support from Congress president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi on the issue but the prospect of a voting would be giving them nightmares.
After exit of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress from UPA2, the government is walking on thin ice so far as the numbers go. A defeat on the floor of Parliament would make it “morally difficult” for the government to continue in office for long.
Though Congress spokespersons Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Rashid Alvi have made the standard response that the government would have discussion on any issue under the rule, it would like to avoid a voting and that could cause confrontation.
The FDI in retail as such does not require parliamentary approval but it is going to be haunted by the assurances given by then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee on December 7, 2011, in Lok Sabha, also in his other capacity of Leader of the House that “the decision to permit 51 percent in multi-brand retail is suspended till consensus developed through consultations among various stakeholders”.
He further said that “the stakeholders include the chief ministers of state governments and political parties because without involvement of them this can never be implemented”. On the same day, Anand Sharma, Minister for Commerce, too, repeated the same statement in Rajya Sabha.
Going by the previous experiences, it can be assumed that the heated exchanges over the substance of the FDI in retail would take place much later but before that there could be a bitter fight between the ruling and opposition parties over the technicalities of Parliamentary norms – whether FDI in retail needs parliamentary approval, whether it can be debated, if so under what rules with voting or without voting.
The BJP would like to keep the heat up against the government on this issue to avoid the embarrassment of responding to the allegations against party president Nitin Gadkari. Besides, having an NDA meet on the subject, the party would make informal consultations with other parties for better floor coordination among Opposition ranks.
The Congress’s biggest ally, the DMK, is not making it easy for the party either, at least at this stage. It looked as though the DMK chief M Karunanidhi is enjoying being in centre of attention. “The DMK stand will be known when the Bill is introduced. Let there be a suspense. Only a suspense movie does well,” the DMK chief said. His remarks assume significance as it came a day after Finance Minister P Chidambaram met him and reportedly sought his party’s support during the winter session.
Karunanidhi had earlier said that his party would support it if the Opposition moved a resolution in Parliament against FDI in multi-brand retail. The DMK has not filled up the two ministerial vacancies under its quota since the resignation of A Raja and Dayanidhi Maran on alleged corruption charges.
While the Congress strategists have been putting up a brave front by making some bold reformist moves, politically the party is under severe stress. After Trinamool's exit, two more partners, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM), with two members, withdrew support and so did the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM). Though MIM had only one member, it's president and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi was an influential minority voice in the ranks of treasury benches. Both JVM and MIM had tie-ups with the Congress in respective states of Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh.
The prime minister did have dinner with Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and lunch with Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati to seek their continued support in the winter session over various issues, but both of them are known to keep the suspense going till the last minute. On most occasions earlier, they have decided to walk out, thus effectively bailing out the government. The Samjawadi Party has 22 members and the Bahujan samaj Party 21. Without their combined support, the government could be defeated on floor of the house.
Mulayam has so far been a vocal opponent of FDI and has even formed a joint Morcha with the Left Front and the Telgu Desam Party. A fuming Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee would make all possible moves to see that the Congress loses in numbers on FDI. The challenge for the Congress is to foil such attempts.