From all accounts, today is going to be the UPA's Big Bang Day. Unfazed by the frontal offensive launched by the opposition and allies like Trinamool Congress and DMK, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is chairing three back-to-back cabinet and cabinet committee meetings to clear some of the big economic reform packages, including politically-sensitive foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail and aviation.
A senior government official summarised the reason for this sudden activism as “karo ya maro” (Do, or die), a phrase borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement.
The Prime Minister will first hold a full cabinet meeting in the afternoon, followed by a session of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, and then a Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure. Senior officials in the government are promising some “big announcements”.
If this is not going to be enough, the Planning Commission, chaired by the Prime Minister, will meet tomorrow to formulate policies on issues relating to health and education, with emphasis on skill development, for giving a boost to the manufacturing sector. For now, the government is also ruling out a rollback in diesel prices or removing the cap on subsidised LPG despite protests by allies and the Opposition.
“Where is the government going to get money for its key social sector programmes if it continues to cross-subsidise petro-prices for all time?" asked the official. The Food Security Bill, considered to be a pet project of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, is still pending even as Congress strategists believe this will be a game-changer like NREGA in 2009.
The agenda for the full Cabinet itself is “very heavy”, sources said. Then, the CCEA will consider issues on FDI, which had earlier faced stiff opposition from the Trinamool Congress. It is expected to deliberate on allowing FDI in multi-brand retail up to 49 percent, permitting foreign airlines to acquire upto 49 percent in Indian carriers and raising the FDI ceiling in direct- to-home (DTH) broadcasting and cable service infrastructure to 74 percent.
A proposal for disinvestment in five major public sector companies, including Nalco, Oil India Ltd, Hindustan Copper, Neyveli Lignite and NMDC, is also expected to come up. The government hopes to raise Rs 10,000 crore through the sale of shares in these companies.
The government wants to allow FDI in retail by allowing the states to decide if they want it. The Congress-ruled states of Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand have already written to the Centre expressing willingness to implement the decision.
The department of industrial policy and promotion (DIPP) has proposed that the FDI limit for broadcast carriage service providers, including DTH, Head-end in the Sky (HITS) and cable TV must be uniform. At present, 49 percent FDI is allowed in cable TV and DTH, while it is 74 percent in HITS. These will now be brought to the equal levels. While the CCEA takes up this issue, amendments will also be considered to the Prasar Bharati statute.
Last month, while talking to media persons on his way back from Teheran, Manmohan Singh had admitted that governance was taking a backseat due to the constant pressure from Opposition and other groups on issues like 2G and Coalgate. By getting into action mode and making a slew of announcements, even if unpopular with some allies, the government wants to send a message that it has the will to get reforms back on track and will not be cowed down by opposition charges on Coalgate.
The Congress strategists seem to have carefully weighed the party’s options and come to the conclusion that the Trinamool or the DMK or the NCP, or even outside supporters like the Samajwadi Party, will not do anything more than shout from the sidelines.
Sonia Gandhi had emphasised to top functionaries in government that the clock was ticking away and before they back to the people in 2014, the government should have something substantive to show by way of results.