The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) may have failed on Monday to persuade the major Opposition parties to give up their demand for a debate on FDI in multi-brand retail with voting, but it made some incremental progress: at the all-party meeting, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Trinamool Congress – who together form a block of 80 MPs – said they would leave it to Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar to decide whether the discussion would be under Rule 184 (which entails voting) or 193 (which doesn’t).
“Even though there was no unanimity at the meeting,” Congress spokesperson Sandeep Dikshit emphasised, “what gives us satisfaction is that a majority of MPs are willing to let the Speaker decide which rule FDI should be debated under… In my reckoning since a majority – 300 to 325, I’d say – want to leave it to the Speaker, we should allow her to take a view so that the House can function smoothly.”
Indeed, the concession made by the DMK, the SP and the Trinamool is significant as they are opposed to allowing FDI in multi-brand retail. For the Congress, the Trinamool’s change of heart, four days after it tried to move a vote of no-confidence against the government, was particularly cheering.
The sub-text, Congress sources indicated, is that if the government finally has to concede a debate with voting, these 80 MPs could be persuaded to bail out the government through abstentions or some other mechanism. (On Tuesday, there will be a meeting of the UPA’s constituents, giving the Congress an opportunity to get all its UPA allies, especially the DMK, on board.
Indeed, emerging from Monday’s meeting, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath told NDTV: “I’m not averse to a vote on FDI but I don't believe it sets a healthy precedent.” He added: “If we can’t convince the Opposition, we will consider a vote on FDI.”
Predictably, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its NDA allies, the Left Parties, the Biju Janata Dal, the Telugu Desam Party and the AIADMK remained firm on their demand for a debate with voting.
“We aren’t ready to compromise. Nothing short of 184,” Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj said after the meeting. But with the capitulation of the Trinamool, an opposition leader who attended the meeting said ruefully, “It looks as though the government will be able to get the numbers if there is a vote.”
If Mr. Nath asked the Opposition parties to reconsider their position, Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma used the occasion to rebut the accusation that the government had reneged on its promise to consult all stakeholders. Over the last one year, he said, letters had been written to 35 chief secretaries/administrators of the States and UTs on the subject.
Mr. Sharma himself had dashed off similar missives to 12 Chief Ministers (in the case of Uttar Pradesh, to the BSP’s Mayawati last year and to her successor, the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav this year), to Leaders of the Opposition in the two Houses, Ms. Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, to CPI chief A.B. Bardhan, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury and CPI MP D. Raja. The Commerce Minister concluded by saying that 11 of the 21 States/UTs had agreed with the government, seven had disagreed with it, and three had been ambivalent. In the last category, were the BJP-ruled States of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh – the third, UP had not taken a view.
But a sceptical Opposition maintained that this only amounted to a “consultation,” not the achievement of a “consensus.”