Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party (SP) is at it again. It has ignited new hope in opposition ranks even while keeping the government on tenterhooks about which way his vote will go in the debate on FDI in multi-brand retail.
Till this morning, it seemed the Manmohan Singh Government could breathe easy as Mulayam's 22-member party was expected to walk out of the Lok Sabha during the vote, thus making it easier for the UPA to swing a majority. But by the afternoon, the SP boss had changed his tune, and his party's leader in the Rajya Sabha, Ram Gopal Yadav, said the party would vote against FDI in the upper house.
Mulayam Singh too, for the record, endorsed the views expressed by his younger brother but did not commit anything on the issue of voting. “We will strongly oppose FDI in retail. Samajwadi Party representatives had made our position clear at the all-party meeting,” he said, but he added that no view had been taken on voting. "It should not be predicted in advance. Based on the dynamism of the situation as it evolves, a decision will be taken.”
With the government deciding to accept a debate in both houses of Parliament with a provision for voting, it is heavily dependent on the whims of the two rivals from Uttar Pradesh — Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). The headache for the Congress' floor managers and strategists is how to keep both in good humour, since they want opposite things on the issue of SC/ST quotas in promotions. In the past, both the parties have bailed out the government on several occasions, but the equations have changed after the exit of the 19-member Trinamool Congress from UPA-2.
There is a strong possibility of a repeat of the Lokpal bill situation of last December, when these parties had allowed it to pass in the Lok Sabha but managed to put a spanner in the works in the upper house. However, this time there is no threat to the government even if it is defeated in the Rajya Sabha.
In the case of the Lokpal Bill, it needed the assent of both houses. In the case of FDI, the voting has no consequences for the FDI policy, since it is an executive decision. If the government loses a vote under Rule 184 in the Lok Sabha, it will not fall, but the loss will be a political embarrassment.
While the SP’s future moves will be largely guided by the leverage BSP's Mayawati gets from the government, particularly on the reservations in promotions for SCs/STs, Mulayam Singh may still bail out the government in the Lok Sabha. The SP has far bigger numbers in the Lok Sabha than in Rajya Sabha.
A defeat in the Rajya Sabha would not be seen as a major setback since it is known that the government does not have the numbers there. The UPA has the support of 95 members, which could be stretched to 100 in a house with an effective membership of 244. The SP has nine and the BSP 15 members. Mere abstentions will not help the government. A positive vote is needed to carry the day.
After a washed-out monsoon session and disruptions over the last four days over whether or not the government would allow a vote, the house started functioning smoothly after Speaker Meira Kumar announced her decision to accept a debate on the issue under Rule 184 which includes a vote.
Sources said Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari played a decisive role by deciding that if there was a vote in the Lok Sabha, there should be one in the upper house as well. His decision helped improve the mood in the opposition camp, as his role in the Lokpal debate last December - where he unilaterally terminated the session - was widely criticised. He was seen as bailing out the government by avoiding a defeat on the Bill in the Rajya Sabha.
Given the complexity of the FDI issue, two days, December 4-5, have been earmarked for the debate. Though the DMK has decided to publicly back the government on the FDI vote, the SP's efforts to keep everyone guessing means the Congress cannot expect smooth sailing.
The opposition BJP and the Left have been given space for manoeuvre.