We’re reaching out to parties to carry through a heavy agenda: Chidambaram

Ahead of what promises to be yet another difficult session of Parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted dinner on Friday for leaders of the Congress’ allies in the United Progressive Alliance at 7 Race Course Road. On Saturday night, it will be the turn of the principal Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to make the journey to his residence.

Over the last week, the Prime Minister has embarked on a programme of dinner – and lunch – diplomacy amidst threats by the Opposition that it will push for a debate, with voting, on the contentious issue of the government permitting FDI in multi-brand retail, a decision that saw the Trinamool Congress leaving the UPA earlier this year.

Friday’s dinner engagement with UPA allies also comes on the heels of a dinner party the Prime Minister had for Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and a luncheon meeting he had with Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati last weekend.

Earlier in the evening, senior Congress leaders, including party president Sonia Gandhi and senior Ministers A.K. Antony and P. Chidambaram, met the Prime Minister to discuss the contours of the government’s strategy for the winter session of Parliament. Congress sources said Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath – who has been pro-active in reaching out to allies and Opposition parties alike since his appointment – is exploring whether an executive order (the decision on FDI in retail was taken through an executive order) can be debated in Parliament at all.

It is also learnt that the Prime Minister is also ready to make a statement on FDI in retail in Parliament during the winter session, if needed. As a senior Minister said on Friday: “We are making very clear that FDI is not just a matter of preference for the leadership but is necessary for economic growth and survival.”

This comes in the wake of Opposition parties demanding that the government face a vote on its decision to allow FDI in retail. With the Trinamool gone, the government is feeling vulnerable, especially as the DMK – now the second largest party in the UPA – is still holding its cards close to its chest on which way it will vote if such a situation arises. However, DMK leader T.R. Baalu did attend Friday’s dinner, along with the the NCP’s Praful Patel, the National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah, the RLD’s Ajit Singh and the IUML’s E. Ahmed. From the Congress, there were Ms. Gandhi, Mr. Antony, Mr. Chidambaram and Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde.

At Saturday’s dinner, the Prime Minister, official sources said, would try to persuade the BJP leaders – L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj – to help the government pass crucial Bills that have been hanging fire for a long time. These include the Lokpal Bill, the Land Acquisition Bill, apart from the laws to permit FDI in insurance and pension.

“This Parliament session has a very heavy legislative agenda,” Mr. Chidambaram said on Friday at a press conference here. “We are reaching out to the various political parties to carry through this agenda in the four weeks that we have for the session.” Expressing the hope that “the forthcoming session will be productive and many Bills will be passed,” he said: “My suggestion is that no one issue should be blown out of proportion. There are many very important issues that concern the welfare of the people and the future of the country.”

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