In a bid to end the impasse over foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail, the government on Wednesday night made a vain attempt to persuade the Opposition to tone down the wording of its adjournment motion. But it was told in categorical terms that the demand for a rollback of the decision was non-negotiable.

The Opposition stance was conveyed by the working president of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) troubleshooter and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee approached him with the proposal.

The compromise formula mooted by the government is akin to the agreement on two separate motions by the Left and the BJP on price rise and black money. Initially, the Opposition insisted on a discussion under the rule which entails voting. However, the government prevailed on the Left to agree to a debate on price rise without voting and influenced the BJP to rephrase its motion confining it to generalities rather than a censure of the government on black money. On the FDI issue, the Opposition leaders have been insisting that they would not agree to anything less than withdrawal of the Cabinet decision.

The contact between Mr. Mukheree and Mr. Advani came after a long wait by the Opposition for a response from the government to its demand to either withdraw its decision to throw open the retail multibrand sector to foreign players or agree to put it to vote in the Lok Sabha.

The long silence on the part of the government is seen by the Opposition as a sign that it is looking at various options including a ‘yes' to an adjournment motion which entails voting. It is also seen as an indication of unease in the government at not getting the numbers right, given the opposition to the FDI move from two UPA constituents, the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

NDA woes

For its part, the BJP-led NDA has had its quota of embarrassment in the last three days. To begin with, the Akali Dal wholeheartedly welcomed the UPA policy shift on FDI. Sources said that to paper over the cracks, senior BJP leaders got into the act and secured a commitment from Akali leaders that in the event of a motion, the party, as a traditional rival of the Congress, would vote against the government.

Even before the Akali issue was resolved, the NDA leaders discovered much to their discomfort that the alliance, in its 2004 poll-eve manifesto, had committed itself to allowing 26 per cent FDI in organised retail trade. “Sourcing of Indian products by foreign retail chains will be encouraged,” the document had said. It further promised to revisit the FDI limit in the insurance sector that was thrown open to foreign companies during the tenure of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The BJP leaders have tied themselves in knots in the last two days in explaining what the Congress has termed “opportunistic” posturing by the party. Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley conceded that his party had endorsed the FDI in retail in 2004, but “re-examined” its position in 2009. He cited the 2009 BJP election manifesto categorically ruling out FDI in multi-brand retail.

Joshi's charge

At a news conference here, senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi charged that the decision to allow 51 per cent FDI in multibrand retail was taken in deference to the wishes of the U.S., the U.K. and France.

“When Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee went to Washington in June, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said he wanted to see progress in reforms in banking, insurance and multibrand retail.” Dr. Joshi said the U.K. and France had expressed similar sentiments.

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