Hopes Opposition will accept the compromise and allow Parliament to function

In its war of nerves with the Opposition, the Congress has blinked on the contentious issue of permitting FDI in multi-brand retail, holding out the promise of “a holdback, not a rollback,” in the hope that it might break the parliamentary logjam. It is now hoping – still hoping – that when the all-party meeting takes place on Wednesday, the Opposition will accept this compromise and allow Parliament to function.

The dominant view in the Congress is that this was the only way forward, as its ally, the 18-member Trinamool Congress (TMC), had refused to budge on its stand on the retail issue, and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) cannot afford a parliamentary vote in which the TMC votes against it, even if it had managed the numbers. The Manmohan Singh government may have billed the FDI decision as UPA Two's first major policy initiative, intended to signal an end to accusations of “policy paralysis” but, clearly, many in the government and party who feel that this is not an issue on which it should risk losing the government.

There is, of course, a pro-reforms section in the party and the government which believe West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee's bluff should have been called: after all, they point out, Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma met her twice in Kolkata before the Cabinet decision, and it was her idea that it should be left to individual States to accept or reject the decision.

But beyond whether the Congress could have managed the numbers in the event of a vote on the FDI issue or not, there are, party sources said, other considerations why it decided “not to stare Ms. Bannerjee down”: in six months, there will be the Presidential elections, and the Congress needs to have all allies on board.

Publicly, the party has reserved its entire wrath for the Opposition. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said, “We are not fighting shy of a full-fledged discussion in Parliament, but every policy decision cannot be voted on as a censure motion in the House – it is an infringement of executive powers.”

The Congress' managers are describing this as a “temporary” setback, but it is also being viewed in party circles as another instance of poor management. Party sources said that either the discussions with the Opposition could have preceded the Cabinet decision, or the government could have waited till the session was over.

In the case of the civil nuclear agreement with the United States, the Left parties had already withdrawn support and the government had moved a vote of confidence. On that occasion, the Congress needed to mobilise numbers without worrying that a party supporting the UPA government would vote against it. This time, too, the party and the government functionaries were confident of mobilising the numbers, but if the TMC had voted against it, it might have become untenable for the government to continue in office. In 2008, UPA-One was riding high – it was a government that could do no wrong. In 2011, UPA-Two is plumbing the depths – it can't do anything right. So it has decided to take a leaf out of Roman historian Tacitus's book: “He that fights and runs away, may turn and fight another day; but he that is in battle slain, will never rise to fight again.”

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