As expected, the all-party meeting convened by the government to end the current logjam in Parliament over the issue of FDI in the multi-brand retail trade sector ended without any conclusion in sight. The government continues to refuse to accept a discussion on this issue under the Rules of Business that entail voting in both the Houses. Rightly, many opposition parties, including the Left which has consistently opposed such a policy both during the earlier AB Vajpayee-led NDA government and the UPA governments, see a discussion without voting as being a mere repetition. On an earlier occasion, both the Houses discussed this issue without voting. In both the Houses, the government assured that a final decision on this matter would be taken only after building a consensus with all the stakeholders including political parties and state governments. This assurance was never honoured. Yet another discussion on similar lines and similar assurances would be meaningless unless the sense of the House is established through voting.
It was the UPA government’s obduracy in not agreeing to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to enquire into the 2G spectrum scam that wasted last year’s winter session. However, in the next session, the government itself moved a resolution for constituting the JPC. If such wisdom had dawned earlier, one whole session would not have been washed out. Similar obduracy now is threatening this year’s winter session.
The Union finance minister, present at the meeting, said that the country’s current account deficit reached an alarming level of $70 billion. This was unsustainable and can only be reduced either through larger inflows of foreign investments or through external borrowing. Given the high fiscal deficit, the latter possibility is ruled out. Hence, we have no other option than to take such decisions, he claimed. The Left argued that there is a need to assess the trade-off between such FDI inflows and its consequences for our economy and the people. In this instance of permitting FDI in retail trade, the country would lose much more than the marginal reduction in the current account deficit. Surely, the entire deficit cannot be wiped out by allowing FDI in the retail trade. On the contrary, this would threaten the livelihood of at least a fifth of our population that is dependent on this sector. Further, international experience has shown that the claim of lower prices for the consumers and higher prices for the producers, particularly farmers, is a myth.
The Union commerce minister, Anand Sharma, on the other hand, had earlier claimed that executive decisions of the government have never been subjected to parliamentary discussions under rules that entail voting. When it was pointed out that on March 1, 2001, under the NDA government led by Vajpayee, a motion moved by a CPI(M) MP disapproving the proposed disinvestment of Bharat Aluminium Co Ltd (Balco) was admitted and discussed and voted upon under a rule that entailed voting, the parliamentary affairs minister sought to negate this precedent by stating that the Balco disinvestment was a ‘stand alone’ issue and not a policy decided by the Union Cabinet.
This is a strange logic, indeed. The Congress party had, on that occasion, supported the CPI(M) motion which was defeated by 239 votes against 154. Leading the Congress support to the CPI(M) motion, Priyaranjan Das Munshi, in that debate said, “Disinvestment and privatisation are two different things. If the equity participation of a management is 51%, it is not disinvestment, it is total privatisation”. Clearly, the Congress then was talking about the NDA’s policy of privatisation as opposed to a ‘stand alone’ case of disinvestment. These are the facts. The Congress cannot rely on falsification now to deny Parliament its right to discuss and vote upon such an issue as FDI in retail, which has a vital bearing on the livelihood of at least a fifth of our country’s population.
Further, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court on this issue. It is only after the apex court’s intervention that the Reserve Bank of India issued a notification amending the regulations to permit FDI in multi-brand retail trade. This has been gazetted on October 30, 2012. The court told the petitioner that there is no reason to fear that the government will not place these amendments in Parliament. Hence, it opined that since the Parliament session is to begin, this appeal should wait for its decision on the matter. Similarly, at the time of the Balco disinvestment, the Delhi High Court also reposed their faith in Parliament while dealing with a writ petition then.
In this connection, Munshi said, “Both the judges reposed their faith on the Parliament. They said that since the matter is in Parliament, let them complete the session, then we will react. This is the respect shown by the judiciary to Parliament. How Parliament should react? Should we fight for discussion under Rule 184 and 193?.... It is not a matter of politics between the Congress and the NDA; and between CPI(M) and the NDA. It is not a matter to score points with the NDA partners. It is a matter of Parliament’s own wisdom before the nation. How should we react to this situation?”
It is in this same spirit which the Congress then upheld as the Opposition party that it should now agree to a discussion under rules that entail voting and let Parliament decide on this matter. In the final analysis, the ultimate sovereignty under our Constitution rests with the people of India and this is exercised by their elected representatives in Parliament. The sanctity of our Constitutional scheme of things cannot be allowed to be undermined.
- Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP.
The views expressed by the author are personal.