Prime Minister dines with BJP leaders tomorrow, UPA tonight

Prime Minister dines with BJP leaders tomorrow, UPA tonight
New Delhi:  The Prime Minister's dinner diplomacy as he preps for the winter session of Parliament will not end with his allies. Dr Manmohan Singh will host top leaders of the main opposition party, the BJP, for dinner tomorrow, sources have said.

Leaders of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, and senior leader LK Advani will dine with the PM at 8 pm tomorrow at his 7, Race Course Road residence. He is expected to brief them on the business the government has lined up for the session and will no doubt impress upon them the need to let Parliament function.   
Dr Singh has already hosted Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh for dinner and Mayawati for Sunday lunch last week; both provide his government with crucial external support. Tonight, he will have all UPA allies over for dinner as he attempts to consolidate his government's strategy ahead of the Winter Session. He needs to do a head count to ensure that if the politically-contentious issue of foreign direct investment in retail is voted on, the government is on the right side of 273 in the Lok Sabha.

Of the allies, the DMK, which with 18 MPs now makes up the second-largest contingent in the ruling alliance after the Congress, has refused to say just yet what its stand will be on FDI, though it has confirmed that senior leader TR Baalu will be there at dinner tonight, sources said. The DMK's numbers are crucial because Mamata Banerjee's walkout with her 19 MPs in September left the government in a minority. 

Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress exited the government in protest against its new reforms push that included reducing subsidy on fuel and the move to allow FDI in retail, and now leads a demand that Dr Manmohan Singh test his strength in Parliament. The party has already given notice for a discussion on the issue and says it also intends to move a No-Confidence Motion against the government. Ms Banerjee's contention is that the government allowed FDI in retail through an executive decision after the Trinamool had withdrawn from the coalition, and therefore a major policy was introduced by a minority government, which it says, is unacceptable.

Ms Banerjee is now on the same side as arch rival, the Left, which too has given notice seeking a debate followed by a vote on FDI in both Houses of Parliament. The main Opposition party, the BJP, has indicated that it will be happy to support any move to test the government's strength on the issue. The party has also lined up other issues like corruption and price rise to attack the government within this session and a major concern right now is whether Parliament will be allowed to function. The last few sessions have seen days of adjournment and little work transacted.

While the government does not have to seek a vote to endorse its FDI decision, the BJP and others argue that overwhelming opposition to the policy makes a vote obligatory. Government sources point out that Dr Singh has already he is ready to debate any issue in the House. They also say that he is not worried about numbers.

The PM's survival strategy depends heavily on Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (22 MPs) and Mayawati's BSP (21 MPs). On an FDI vote too, Dr Singh will need their benevolence. Neither has seemed anxious to destabilise the government, though both like to occasionally remind the ruling Congress about their importance by talking about the possibility of early elections. Like today, when Mr Yadav announced a list of 55 SP candidates for the Lok Sabha elections due only in 2014, indicating that the SP will go it aloine in those elections and thus defining its engagement with the Congress.

Mr Yadav has been a vocal opponent of FDI in retail, but has also said that his more immediate concern is keeping what he calls "communal forces," read the BJP, at bay. In such, his best option if FDI is voted upon, would be to abstain.

The DMK's M Karunanidhi has so far refused to spell out what his party will do. "Let the DMK's stand remain a suspense. Only a movie with suspense does well," he said earlier this week amid reports that the party would explore how to avoid voting against the government without undermining its own stand - it has said it will continue to protect the interests of traders and small vendors, a powerful vote bank in Tamil Nadu that says FDI in retail is a sell-out by the government. The DMK is said to be considering not taking a stand at all by possibly walking out before a vote. 

Ms Mayawati has remained vague on her party's stand on the FDI issue after her lunch with the Prime Minister on Sunday, saying . "Whenever such a situation crops up, ask us this question (then). Why do you want our response in advance?". But government sources said Sunday lunch with the PM went well and it was confident of her support on the floor of the House. She has earlier said that she is amenable to being convinced about the benefits of FDI in retail. The government's calculation is that Ms Mayawati's 22 MPs would offset the DMK's 18.  

In the 545-seat Lok Sabha, the government is comfortably over the 273 halfway mark with a little over 300 MPs on its side if it counts the external support of the 43 that Mulayam Singh and Mayawati bring together. However, if there is a vote on the FDI in retail issue, Dr Manmohan Singh will have to do some number-crunching. The government can safely count 243 MPs in favour of FDI - this excludes the DMK's 18 MPs. There are 205 opposition MPs clearly aligned against it on the issue. That leaves 96 MPs who can be gamechangers - this includes the DMK's 18, BSP's 21, the SP's 22, Akali Dal with 4, the BJD with its 14 MPs and 17 others. Of these, the government would need 30 to edge past 273.

However, if the DMK, SP and BSP abstain from voting to save the government, the majority mark will drop from 273 to 243. The government would then need to swing 13 from the 35 remaining fence-sitters to defeat a motion against FDI.

If the FDI in retail issue is voted on, Dr Singh's number crunching will take into account this data:

FOR FDI = UPA+(261) - DMK(18)= 243

  • DMK: 18
  • BSP: 21
  • SP: 22
  • Akali Dal: 4
  • BJD: 14
  • Others: 17

AGAINST FDI = BJP(115) + JD(U) (20) + SHIV SENA (11) + Left parties(24) + TMC (19) + AIADMK (9) + TDP (6) + SWP (1) )= 205

  • FOR FDI: 243
  • ANTI-FDI: 205

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