New Delhi: Officially, the UPA says it will abide by the Lok Sabha Speaker's decision on whether or not a discussion in the House on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail will be followed by a vote. It seems, however, to be preparing for that vote and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath will meet the BJP's Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley today to discuss modalities. (Track live updates here)
The Manmohan Singh government had so far held out on a vote, arguing that an executive decision on policy did not need Parliament's approval. But, on Tuesday, it indicated that it was ready to give in to the Opposition's demand; this after a meeting of UPA allies, where it got confirmation that southern partner DMK would support it in Parliament.
Mr Kamal Nath said after the UPA meeting that the allies had agreed to leave a decision on what rule to debate the matter under to the Lok Sabha Speaker. The BJP-led Opposition has been pressing for a discussion under Rule 184 in the Lok Sabha and Rule 167 in the Rajya Sabha, which entail voting at the end of the debate.
"The UPA is fully united. The allies want the Speaker to decide. I will consult the Speaker," Mr Kamal Nath said. (Watch)
And 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 situation. Though we have differences on FDI, we will support the government to avert the UPA's fall. We do not want to give room for BJP to come to power." (Read)
Earlier on Tuesday, the BJP held its own meeting and said it would not let Parliament function until the government agreed to a debate and vote; 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 (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), 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 on Monday, demonstrating intent to the BSP.
The CPM's Sitaram Yechury slammed both the SP, which has been a partner of the Left, and the DMK for going back on their stand on FDI in retail. Both parties have been vocally opposed to it for long.
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 260 MPs. In the 244-seat Rajya Sabha, the UPA has only 95 MPs and will again count on the SP(9) or BSP (15). 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.
Tuesday'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.