Armed with crucial ally DMK's support - word of which came in even as the UPA was meeting in the capital - the Manmohan Singh government has indicated that it is ready for a vote on the contentious issue of foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. At that meeting, the allies agreed to leave it to the Lok Sabha Speaker to decide under which rule the House would discuss the issue - with or without a vote at the end of it. (Track live updates here)
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath said after the meeting, "The UPA is fully united. The allies want the Speaker to decide. I will consult the Speaker." He is expected to meet the Speaker to convey the government's decision and in next steps, the business advisory committee will decide on a date for a debate, possibly next week, say sources. (Watch)
He will also meet senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley tomorrow to discuss the modalities of the debate and voting.
In clear indication that the government was donning battle gear, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said as he emerged after meeting his allies, "We are confident of numbers." While Dr Manmohan Singh has said that before, this time his math includes the 18 Lok Sabha MPs of the DMK, the second largest party in the ruling coalition after the Congress.
As the allies met, DMK chief M Karunanidhi said in faraway Chennai that while the DMK had its reservations on FDI in retail, the more overwhelming political need was to keep the BJP at bay. He said, "The UPA government's continuance is a must in the present situtation. Though we have differences on FDI, we will support the government to avert the UPA's fall. We not want to give room for BJP to come to power." (Read)
The BJP-led opposition is adamant that it will not let Parliament function until the government agrees to a debate and vote on its big policy decision to allow 51 per cent FDI in multi-brand retail. The BJP held its own meeting this morning and reiterated its stand; minutes later it kept its word forcing an adjournment in both Houses. For the fourth day in the Winter Session, no work was transacted.
"If there is no vote, the government will be responsible for stalling House," BJP spokesman Shahnawaz Hussain said after a meeting of the BJP parliamentary party, and asked the government not to "run away from a vote."
That was before the DMK parachuted in with its rescue act. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, who provide critical outside support to the UPA government, are expected to not rock the boat; they have said that they want a discussion on FDI in retail, leaving it to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to decide on the requirement of voting.
The BSP's support on FDI comes with a rider - it wants the bill on quota in government job promotions to be tabled in Parliament first. Easily done, save that the Samajwadi Party is dead opposed to this bill, since it is going to affect its core voter base. The introduction of the promotion quota bill in the last session ended in a fist-fight in Parliament between the two sides. Walking a tightrope, the government listed the quota bill in the Rajya Sabha yesterday demonstrating intent to the BSP.
The UPA needs both the SP and the BSP 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 240 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.
Today's UPA meeting was an A-list affair, with Rahul Gandhi a part of the Congress team in attendance. Also present were UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, apart from Ahmed Patel, Mrs Gandhi's political secretary and alliance partners like Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel of the NCP, Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference and TR Baalu of the DMK.