FDI in retail vote: Triumph of Congress' slice-and-dice politics

In an earlier time before he took to politics, Mulayam Singh Yadav earned much distinction as a  kushti warrior who would wrestle his opponents down in the sandpit.

On Wednesday, however, the nation was witness to the inglorious sight of the erstwhile pehelvan fleeing from the wrestling pit of the Lok Sabha, his dhoti hoisted knee-high in order to enhance his speed of locomotion.

And once outside Parliament, in the glare of television cameras, Mulayam Singh gave an inexpert demonstration of another kind of spectator sport: verbal gymnastics.  He and his Samajwadi Party MPs, he said, did not favour foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail - and yet, when it came right down to it, they would not vote against the proposal in the Lok Sabha, where the matter came up for vote on Wednesday.

Mulayam Singh Yadav; the pehelvan who fled the wrestling pit. Agencies.

By the circular illogic of  politics, the Samajwadi Party was, in effect, not voting against the FDI-in-retail proposal  even though it was against FDI in retail!

On television talk shows across most channels on Wednesday night, the Samajwadi Party was the object of much targeted criticism for its "hypocrisy"  and its unashamed pursuit of "opportunistic" politics. Party spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia could offer no rational explanation of his party's stand other than that the reason for the Samajwadi Party's walkout on the crucial vote was "best known to Mulayam Singh".

Actually, Bhatia is wrong. The reason for Mulayam Singh's dhoti-flailing retreat from Parliament on Wednesday is well known to anyone who is familiar with the instruments of political coercion and inducement that the Congress can exercise over the Samajwadi Party. The golden rule of politics is that when you have someone by his b****,  his heart and mind soon follows. And in many ways, the  erstwhile pehelvan is caught in the Congress' vice-like political grip, given the many levers of power that it has over him.

The BSP's Mayawati too is open to criticism on the same count, of course. But she and her partymen exhibited a little more political savvy - by not projecting themselves on talk shows, to be ridiculed for their political opportunism and their hypocrisy. And in any case, she had already extracted her pound of flesh from the Congress - the promise to provide for caste-based quotas in promotions - in exchange for her party's tacit support that bailed out the government yet again on Wednesday.

The only ones gloating last night were Congress leaders. Not only had the government 'won' the vote in the Lok Sabha, it was facing only peripheral flak since most of the fireworks within the Opposition was directed at the Samajwadi Party and the BSP, which were seen by Left parties and the Trinamool Congress as rank opportunists.

The BJP may claim a 'moral victory' - by pointing to the fact that during the debate on the motion to withdraw the provision for FDI in multi-brand retail, many more parties spoke out against FDI than in favour of it. As Sushma Swaraj pointed out during a rollicking summing-up statement in the Lok Sabha late on Wednesday, Mulayam Singh Yadav had claimed during his speech that if Mahatma Gandhi  were around today, the FDI provision would never be passed. "But," she noted, "if Mulayam-ji himself had been in the Lok Sabha for the vote, the FDI provision would never, never, never have been passed."

But the 'moral victory' - such as it is - offers the BJP little by way of consolation. Politics is, when it comes right down to it, a numbers game. And for reasons that were plain to see even before the BJP was pressing for a vote on motion to withdraw the FDI-in-retail provision, the BJP lost that numbers game. Nor can it seek any solace from the fact that even parties that look upon it as politically untouchable - from the Left parties to the Trinamool Congress to the Biju Janata Dal - voted to support its motion. That's because for all the short-term commonality of interests in this specific instance, many of these same parties will not want to be seen to be associating politically with the BJP on precisely the same grounds that the Samajwadi Party and the BSP invoked on Wednesday to account for their political flip-flops: that they did not want "communal" forces to succeed.

The cruel, but humbling, takeaway  for the BJP is that the Congress is far more skilled than the BJP can ever be at slicing and dicing the polity and coming out on top. Politics isn't about 'morality" -  and in any case, virtually every party, including the BJP, has been politically dishonest by resorting to policy flip-flops on the issue of FDI in retail.  Politics, as the Congress demonstrated on Wednesday, is about muddying the waters so thoroughly and bamboozling your opponents and using every instrument of state power to win friends and influence allies and even sections of the Opposition.

And, at the end of it all, the Congress has, as Firstpost noted here, used the debate over the FDI-in-retail provision to deflect attention away from its rather more bruising corruption scandals - and even managed to project itself as being "reformist".

For all those reasons, only one party is today laughing all the way to its (vote) bank.