On the opening day of the winter session of Parliament on Thursday, the United Progressive Alliance government crossed its first hurdle after the no-confidence motion moved by the former ally, Trinamool Congress, was rejected by the Lok Sabha Speaker after the party failed to muster the mandatory minimum number of backers for the move. While this is a victory of sorts for the government as it ensures that no party can move a no-trust resolution against it for another six months — till next year’s monsoon session — the government’s managers still have their work cut out for them: they still have to persuade the Opposition to give up its demand that the debate on the contentious issue of FDI in multi-brand retail must come under a rule that entails voting.
On Thursday, the government continued to keep up the pressure on the Opposition, especially the formidable combination of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left Parties, which is working in tandem, to agree to a simple debate without voting. In the morning, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself made a televised appeal outside Parliament House on the issue, while Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma called a press conference late in the evening to “rebut” the arguments that Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley had made to journalists in favour of a discussion with voting.
Stressing that the government had a “very heavy legislative agenda,” the Prime Minister sought the Opposition’s cooperation to jointly “face the issues and challenges that we face as a nation.” The ruling coalition, he said, was ready to discuss all issues in Parliament. He underscored the fact that if the economic problems were to be surmounted and jobs created, investment in infrastructure sectors and social services like health and education needed to be increased “to accelerate the tempo of economic growth.” But all this requires “cohesive collective action on the part of all segments of our polity.”
Later in the evening, the Prime Minister met senior BJP leaders L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Mr. Jaitley over dinner to make a personal appeal. So far, Dr. Singh has had discussions on the FDI issue with leaders of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party — also over a convivial meal at 7, Race Course Road. On Thursday, the SP and the BSP indicated that they would go along with the government on a debate on FDI without voting.
As the government reaches out to political parties across the House ahead of an all-party meeting on Monday, it also became clear that Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath is playing the lead role and that others involved are, apart from the Prime Minister, Union Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. Mr. Antony is likely to talk to DMK leader M. Karunanidhi on the issue. On Thursday, even as Mr. Nath told journalists, “There can be a discussion but they cannot insist that it must be under this particular rule or on this particular date,” he added that he did not want to be confrontational with the Opposition.
For the government, the reason why it would prefer not to have a debate on FDI in multi-brand retail with voting is that in case it fails to muster the numbers, it would find it hard to then carry forward with implementation. As it is, it has a legislative hurdle ahead on FDI — before it can be operationalised, the Foreign Exchange Management Act law will have to be brought in line with the FDI rules. But with the SP and BSP falling in line, it might just that much be easier for the government to face a vote, if it becomes inevitable.