New Delhi: The battle over Foreign Direct Investment or FDI in retail shows no sign of abating. This despite the fact that for the eighth day in a row, Parliament did not get down to work because of the stand-off between the government and the opposition. Another day was spent by the Congress trying to gather its allies on board as it prepares for a vote in parliament that will test its new policy. The BJP amped up its attack on the government by demanding that Congress president Sonia Gandhi articulate her stand on 51% foreign ownership of multi-brand retail stores.
Whether the government survives a vote on its new policy on FDI will depend largely on the stand taken by two key allies - the DMK and Mamata Banerjee's TMC. The former has committed to voting with the government. Ms Banerjee's party, however, has said it cannot do the same. So far, Ms Banerjee, who carries the clout of 18 Lok Sabha MPs, has said she cannot support any decision to allow FDI in retail. "Policy is not like a shirt which you can change," said her party's Dinesh Trivedi this morning, after a meeting with the PM. Another TMC leader, Sudip Bandhopadhyay, added that the party does not want to jeopardize the government. Mr Trivedi, who is the Railways Minister, did not attend a cabinet meeting this evening - his absence is being read as a strategic move. Sources say that the TMC may be open to abstention during a vote. In exchange, the government will have to give Ms Banerjee's state, West Bengal, a hefty financial bailout package.
On being asked which side would Trinamool vote, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, a Trinamool MP told NDTV, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it. We will reveal what we do on the floor of the house."
Abstaining during a vote suits the TMC because it can claim that it did not want to jeopardize the government - and because it cannot be seen as voting along with its old rival, the Left, and the BJP - both of who will oppose FDI in retail during the vote. But for the Congress - that's not enough. With the TMC sitting out the vote, and the DMK supporting the government, the majority for the UPA will be wafer-thin - too slim a margin to counter accusations that the government has lost the confidence of the House on this retail policy.
Parliament remains in state of suspension because the BJP holds that a vote can take place only on a motion of its choice - and it has a strongly-worded motion ready that asks for "a rollback" of the reforms in retail. That text is not acceptable to the government.
The BJP this evening dared the Congress party president to make her stand clear on whether allowing 51 per cent foreign ownership of stores that stock different brands is good for the economy. "It appears Congress and the government do not agree on allowing FDI in retail; Sonia Gandhi should make her views clear," said BJP leader Sushma Swaraj. The Prime Minister defended his reforms in the retail sector with a speech on Tuesday evening. Sonia Gandhi was present at the gathering of youth Congress leaders but did not comment on the policy. The Congress has said the decision to allow international chains like Wal-Mart to sell directly to Indian consumers is "well thought-out" and will help farmers and consumers.
Last night, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee called BJP leader LK Advani and offered a one-line adjournment motion; because it did not refer to a revocation of the FDI policy, Mr Advani rejected it. He said the draft of the adjournment motion placed by the BJP is "non-negotiable." But Mr Mukherjee told Mr Advani that the Prime Minister is not in favour of reversing his decision.