Parliamentary approval for FDI in multi-brand retail has given immense happiness to the top brass in the Manmohan Singh government and the ruling Congress. An executive decision now carries additional weight with a legislative nod and, more importantly, the government can now show that it has the right numbers to carry UPA-2 to its designated path. The government does not have to worry about anything at least till the budget session next year.
But amidst the jubilation in the ruling coalition and the put-on bravado of the opposition, there are hidden numbers that tell a different story.
According to Dr V Maitreyan, AIADMK leader and mover of the motion against FDI in retail in the Rajya Sabha, of the 34 speakers from 22 parties, three Independents and one nominated member who spoke in the debate, the majority were against FDI.
He said the nature of opinion and voting on the debate could be divided into four categories: (1) Opposing, opposing – those who opposed the policy in the debate and the vote - 20 speakers from 13 parties; (2) Opposing, abstaining – those opposed the policy in the debate and abstained (just 1, the Samajwadi Party); (3) Opposing, supporting —those who opposed the policy in the debate but supported it by voting for it — two (both BSP); and (4) Supporting, supporting - debaters who both supported the government's policy and voted for it — 11 speakers from six parties.
Maitreyan said “it is unfortunate that voting is not on the merits of the FDI policy but on other considerations also. FDI in retail loses but the government of the day wins. The manoeuvrability of the government wins. To put it in another way, Anand Sharma (Commerce Minister) loses and Kamal Nath (Parliamentary Affairs Minister) wins.”
In the Lok Sabha, while concluding the debate, Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj said if one were to go by the speeches made by leaders of various parties and their strength, a majority - 282 members - were opposed to the policy. But the final tally in the vote read 224 for opposition versus 254 for the government. In the Rajya Sabha the final tally read 109 for the opposition and 123 for the government.
In a parliamentary democracy, it is the numbers which finally matter - now matter how they come. Political parties like the Samajwadi Party and the BSP also get away with their double-speak in the belief that their core social constituents will go by what they say and not by what they do on the floor of the house. With their support base rooted in caste politics, they don’t necessarily bother about what their rivals say unless it has a potential to hurt their social constituency. The issue of voting is guided by that.
The Samajwadi Party is confident that it did its duty by opposing FDI in retail in speeches and this was enough to convince its support base. Moreover, the policy is not going to be implemented by the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh. “It would have hurt us if we were seen to be voting with the BJP. We can’t afford to do that”, an SP leader said, adding, for the record, that there was no pressure on the party from any quarter to abstain.
But did the SP not lead a Fourth Front morcha along with the Left and TDP and also call for a Bharat Bandh opposing FDI in retail? The SP leader laughed and said: “That was a long time ago. If the BJP was so concerned about opposition unity on FDI, why did they press for a vote on the issue in Parliament. The politics of UP is such that we could any time be blamed for standing by communal forces.”
CPM leader Sitaram Ram Yechuri’s arguments at the beginning of his speech, that “this is not a secular-communal issue, this is about the economic policy of the government”, did not have any takers in the SP and BSP.
Smarting under defeat, opposition leaders have called this a “moral victory” for them and a “technical victory” for the government.
However, the fight may continue in the budget session. The Left and the BJP may now be looking to annul the FEMA amendments needed to activate FDI during the Budget session in February-March next year.
The results of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections may add some twist to the tale.