New Delhi: The BJP's Sushma Swaraj today initiated the debate on Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retail, slamming the government for not building political consensus despite promising to take along all parties on the major reform policy. She ended a fiery argument against FDI in retail, replete with political jibes at the Congress and its top leadership, by saying, "we don't want to win by defeating you, we want to win by convincing you."
Ms Swaraj was clear that the BJP's opposition was not to FDI but to FDI in multi-brand retail, which she said would allow big foreign supermarkets to enter India and swallow its small retailers. "The retailers who will now come in will resort to predatory pricing - first wipe out the competition at low rates and then when the consumer has no choice sell at high prices," she said. The Leader of Opposition took umbrage at the fact that the government had made no attempt to even consult major political parties. "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.
The Lok Sabha will discuss FDI in retail over two days before voting on it tomorrow. The second speaker, Saugata Roy of the Trinamool Congress, endorsed Ms Swaraj's opposition to the government's reform. Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool pulled out its six ministers, including Mr Roy, from the Manmohan Singh government and quit the ruling coalition in September this year to protest against FDI in retail and other reform measures.
As Ms Swaraj ended her speech she turned to the BSP and Samajwadi Party benches in the Lok Sabha and made a direct appeal saying, "If the government does not take the decision back, then I appeal to my colleagues here, vote with us and defeat FDI. The government will not fall if they lose the vote."
The government, which has managed to convince all UPA partners, including the DMK, to stand by it in tomorrow's vote, has been kept guessing by the SP and BSP, which provide external support to it, on which way they will vote. Ms Swaraj was alluding to the fact that these parties, especially the SP, have spoken against FDI in retail outside Parliament, but have hinted that they might bail out the government to keep the BJP at bay. But while SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav was non-committal yesterday, his brother and party colleague Ram Gopal Yadav said before the debate today, "The Samajwadi Party is of the opinion that FDI is completely against the welfare of small traders", adding, "Voting with the BJP may not be a consideration. The Left is also against FDI but both parties' policies are poles apart." The government is said to be counting on the SP to abstain or walk out, either way not voting against it.
The BSP, too, has played hard to get, with party chief Mayawati indicating that her vote on FDI is linked to the passing of a bill that provides reservation for scheduled castes and tribes in promotions for government jobs. The BSP reportedly wanted the quota bill to be passed first, and the government had duly listed it in the Rajya Sabha today. Only, the SP, which is opposed to the quota bill, did not let the Upper House function. The Rajya Sabha has been adjourned for the day. As it grapples with that knot, the Manmohan Singh government wore its confident face this morning with Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath saying, "The government is confident that the BJP's motion against FDI will be rejected in both Houses of Parliament." (Watch)
Mayawati's BSP could abstain or, if satisfied with the government's intention on the quota Bill, even vote in favour of it, the government's floor managers reckon. She said yesterday that keeping "communal forces" at bay was a priority, indicating that she would not vote on the same side as the BJP. "Without seeing the results, we cannot currently support the policy to introduce FDI in retail. We will decide about voting on the floor of the House as we don't want to stand by communal parties," Ms Mayawati said.
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. The government is said to be talking to smaller groups too in the Rajya Sabha to make up numbers.
The government has managed to consolidate the support of its UPA allies, including the DMK, ahead of the FDI vote, but some Congressmen from the Telangana region in Andhra Pradesh have chosen to send ominous signals hours before the crucial debate begins in the Lok Sabha. 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. (Read: Nine Telangana MPs skip meeting with Kamal Nath)
The entire BJP-led NDA has closed ranks in opposing the FDI decision. "We will strongly oppose FDI in both houses. In Lok Sabha, the debate will be initiated by Sushma Swaraj and our senior leader MM Joshi will intervene. In Rajya Sabha, the debate will be initiated by Arun Jaitley and Mr Venkaiah Naidu will intervene," BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said after the party's parliamentary party meet today.
The Left parties, AIADMK, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and some other parties have also made their intent to vote against the government clear. Despite that, the Prime Minister reached out to the AIADMK yesterday and asked it to reconsider its opposition to the policy in national interest. The AIADMK rules Tamil Nadu with its chief J Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister.
The vote in both Houses is a symbolic one, but a loss could adrenalise the Opposition's demand for a rollback of the reform, and severely undermine the authority of the Prime Minister whose government shrank to a minority in September when key ally Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress exited the ruling coalition over the decision to allow 51% Foreign Direct Investment or FDI in retail. Other reforms opposed by the party included a decision to limit the supply of subsidised cooking gas to households.