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Government suggests debate without voting at all-party meeting

Government suggests debate without voting at all-party meeting
New Delhi The government appears to have succeeded in gathering the numbers to beat a vote in Parliament on its decision to allow Foreign Direct Investment or FDI in multi-brand retail. But it is so far reluctant to face that situation, telling the opposition at an all-party meeting today to settle for discussion without voting. The opposition, led by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as well as the Left, though are insisting on a vote.

"BJP has decided very firmly and there will be no compromise... we want a discussion that ends with a vote in Lok Sabha under Rule 184, and under Rule 167 in Rajya Sabha. We will only state our opinion only in Parliament; it won't function till the government agrees on a vote," said Ms Swaraj.

The all-party meeting was called by the Prime Minister to break the deadlock over the issue and was preceded by both houses of Parliament getting adjourned after protests. The UPA will meet tomorrow to discuss the issue.

Perhaps sensing that the government has the numbers, several opposition parties looked like they were not insistent on the vote and could settle for a discussion. Most important of these was the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which said at the meeting that it wanted a discussion, but left it to the Speaker of Lok Sabha to decide under which rule, leaving open the option of not having a vote at all. TMC had pulled out of the government on the issue of FDI in retail, leaving it in a minority.

By the time that meeting started this afternoon, the government seemed to have got its allies and friends - a lot of them opposed to the FDI decision - aligned with it on the possibility of a vote.

Two of its friends, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party could abstain from voting, bringing down the minimum number required to win a vote. Both the SP and BSP support the government from outside. Ally DMK too softened its stand after its chief M Karunanidhi met Congress negotiator Ghulam Nabi Azad in Chennai.

The SP's chief Mulayam Singh Yadav met the Prime Minister a short while before that all-party meeting, after which, sources the SP might not participate in a vote, if it does take place. Mr Yadav skipped the all-party meet as well.

Another crucial friend of the UPA, Mayawati's BSP, has also been unwilling to support a vote on FDI in Parliament. It has also not backed anti-FDI protests, in which the SP along with the rest of the opposition had participated, after the government announced its policy decision. But Ms Mayawati, at the all-party meet, has asked for a bill for promotion quotas in government jobs to be introduced in Parliament first. The SP is strongly opposed to this proposal, since it will hit the party's voter base. That will be another tricky knot for the Congress to untangle. 

The UPA needs both the BSP and the SP to take its numbers to about 300 odd, safely across the halfway mark at 273 in the 545-seat Lok Sabha. Without them it has about 243 MPs. Though the government will not fall if it loses a discussion-and-vote in Parliament, it will be a crippling embarrassment as well as give the opposition an upper hand in its sustained refusal to accept FDI in retail. The BJP and the Left are pushing hard to debate the FDI issue under Rule 184, that entails voting. The government has so far refused arguing that an executive decision does not need Parliament's nod.

The government is being forced to walk the political tightrope because despite the many days the PM spent planning, strategising and consolidating support on the contentious policy decision, even UPA partners looked uncertain with their support.

The opposition, led by the BJP, has kept up the pressure, forcing adjournments in both houses. The first two days of the month-long winter session were washed out last week. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma met Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, in a bid to break the impasse on FDI.

The government hopes to resolve the FDI crisis at the earliest as it needs to move important legislation including food security bill, Lokpal bill, whistle-blowers' bill and those relating to banking and insurance sectors in Parliament.
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