Initiating the debate, senior BJP leader and Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj said that the BJP's opposition was not to FDI, but to FDI in multi-brand retail, which she said "should be allowed in power, airports but not retail." She also accused the government of failing to build consensus, or even consult the Opposition, before going ahead with the politically-sensitive reform, though it had promised to. "We are the principal opposition party...but no attempt was made to reach out to us. No letter, no phone call. We heard from TV," Ms Swaraj said.
Senior minister Kapil Sibal fronted by the government as its first speaker, hit back at Ms Swaraj point by point. In 2004, the BJP said in its vision document that it supported FDI in retail... now that you are not in power, you have changed your stance...it is an exaggeration to say the country will be sold," Mr Sibal said. He said FDI would be introduced only in 18 states, in 53 cities that had population over 10 lakhs and state governments could choose whether or not to implement it.
Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, who opposed FDI in retail, pounced on Mr Sibal's argument saying, "If you are convinced that this policy will help the people, why introduce it only in towns with population over 10 lakhs? It is because these big global supermarkets do not want to go to smaller towns where they won't be able to earn as much." Mr Yadav, who provides crucial external support to the UPA government, said the latter's move would hit farmers and would create "unemployment". He appealed to Congress president Sonia Gandhi saying, "There is Gandhi in your name...remember what he said...you are forgetting Swadeshi and getting in Videshi."
The government's floor managers hope that despite its opposition, the Samajwadi Party will find it difficult to vote on the same side as the BJP; they are counting on Mr Yadav's party abstaining or walking out during the vote.
The Trinamool Congress, which had exited the UPA government in September to protest against FDI and other reform measures, said that it would "fight tooth and nail" against the government's policy decision. Party leader Saugata Roy warned that big retailers "will come as traders and end up as kings," as allusion to British rule in India. He also alleged that the "government had sold its head for 30 pieces of silver".
The government has, so far, managed to get all its UPA allies on board, including the DMK, ahead of tomorrow's vote. It is yet to get a commitment from the BSP's Mayawati who has hinted that she will not let it down, but reportedly linked her support of FDI to the passing of a bill that provides reservation for scheduled castes and tribes in promotions for government jobs. But she did say that keeping "communal forces at bay" was a priority. In the Lok Sabha today, her MPs were seen nodding in agreement when Mr Sibal was speaking.
But, in a minor worry for the government, nine Telangana MPs, including minister Jaipal Reddy, boycotted a meeting with Mr Kamal Nath this morning. The MPs have not made it clear yet if they plan to abstain during the vote; sources said they are upset that the Telangana issue is being overlooked. If they do abstain, they will be defying a Congress whip for all members to be present during the debate and vote.
If the BSP and SP both abstain in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, the majority mark will come down from 273 to 251. The Congress and its UPA allies have 261 MPs. Anti-FDI MPs add up to 219. The motion will be put to vote in the Lok Sabha tomorrow. The Rajya Sabha will begin debating the issue on Thursday and will vote on Friday.
In the Rajya Sabha, the government is in a distinct minority and will need more active support from the SP and the BSP. The Upper House has a strength of 244. Along with its allies, the UPA has a strength of 94 members. The 10 nominated members may go ahead to vote with the government. Among the seven Independents, three or four may support the government. Still, the ruling coalition may have to persuade outside supporters BSP (15) and SP (9) to vote with the government.
Earlier in the day, there was uproar in the lower house with the Opposition demanding that some amendments sought in the Foreign Exchange Management Act or FEMA be separated from the FDI debate. The FEMA amendments are essential for the government to implement FDI in multi-brand retail. After a heated exchange of words between the government and the opposition, the Speaker ruled that the two could be debated together.