The plot remained the same, the script somewhat changed.
Both Houses of Parliament were adjourned over a variety of issue — rationing of LPG cylinders, perceived atrocities in Uttar Pradesh, and so on, which were simultaneously raised by different political parties. The main issue over which a confrontation between government and opposition was expected to peak—a discussion on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail with voting under Rule 184—got completely sidetracked in the din, with the regional parties opting to take political postures on unrelated issues.
The situation is not entirely to the government’s liking. Notices for a number of adjournment or privilege motions have been filed by the NDA and the Left with the chairpersons of the two houses of Parliament. Though, for the record, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath and other Congress spokespersons have said they are willing to hold a debate, they do not really want a vote. If the opposition members’ notices are accepted by the Speaker of the Lok Sabha or the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha in their current form, it would require voting at the end of the debate. A defeat on the floor of Parliament would make it “morally difficult” for the government to continue in office for long.
The UPA government, after the exit of the Trinamool Congress, is in a minority and would not like a vote on the politically-contentious issue of FDI in multi-brand retail, especially since allies like DMK, or outside supporters like the Samajwadi Party, are formally committed against this move. The DMK conveyed this sense to the Congress leadership at a dinner meeting held for allies by Manmohan Singh. The biggest UPA ally has kept the suspense going, with party chief M Karunanidhi recently saying that a suspense film often did better at the box office.
Recently, two more partners of UPA-2, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM), with two members, and the the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), with one MP, withdrew support to the government. MIM’s president and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi is an influential and important minority voice in the ranks of the treasury benches. Both JVM and MIM had tie-ups with the Congress in their respective states of Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh.
Given the numbers situation, the stakes are currently high, both for the government and the opposition. It is going to be a battle of nerves and wits before a final decision is taken on voting over FDI. After a further build-up of acrimony, the real picture will emerge only on Monday. The prime minister, in the meantime, will try to soften the BJP leadership tonight over dinner at his residence.
Amid noises from various quarters, the Trinamool Congress is trying to force an agenda-setting no-confidence motion. The problem is that while many opposition parties would like to support the move, they are not sure of the final numbers, in particular how Mulayam Singh Yadav, with 22 MPs, and Mayawati, with 21 MPs, will vote. They have so far consistently bailed out the government, either by abstaining or walking out. The NDA and the Left first want to test their grit and numbers on the FDI issue and will back a no-confidence only if it goes well.
The leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, made futile attempts to raise the FDI issue in the din; in the Rajya Sabha, her counterpart Arun Jaitley did not even get a chance to rise. Government strategists feel that even if Parliament is adjourned over a multiplicity of unrelated issues, the impression will be that it was adjourned over FDI.
But disruptions could start working to the advantage of the Congress at some point, as the public perception would grow that the opposition is only trying to obstruct Parliament session after session. The last Winter Session was washed out over 2G and the monsoon session this year was washed out over Coalgate. A section of the BJP would like the confrontation to go on for a while since it helps keep their ranks united and check the growing voices of resentment against party president Nitin Gadkari.
A track II attempt at floor coordination is on between opposition parties, with Arun Jaitley, CPM Leader Sitaram Yachuri and NDA convener Sharad Yadav planning to share a dais at the seminar on FDI.
FDI in retail, as such, does not require parliamentary approval, but the government’s floor managers are being haunted by the assurance given on 7 December 2011 by then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee in the Lok Sabha: “The decision to permit 51 percent in multi-brand retail is suspended till consensus (is) developed through consultations among various stakeholders.” He further said that “the stakeholders include the chief ministers of state governments and political parties because without the involvement of them this can never be implemented”. On the same day, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma repeated the same statement in the Rajya Sabha.
The BJP is making it a privilege issue where a solemn assurance given by the then finance minister and current President has allegedly been violated by the government. BJP parliamentary party leader LK Advani spoke at length about it at an all-party meeting held by Speaker Meira Kumar on Wednesday. Swaraj reiterated it today.
Over the next few days, the Samajwadi Party’s actions will be most closely watched. After all, it had formed a Fourth Front with the Left and Telugu Desam, but Mulayam Singh Yadav is known to switch sides when convenient. The BSP has, however, given an early indication of support to the government on the issue. But Mayawati is also known to extract her pound of flesh for support.