‘Many said that Kentucky [Kentucky Fried Chicken] will drive the dhabas out of the market. The dhabas have driven out Kentucky. The Indian sherbet is still there despite Coca Cola and Pepsi. Don’t underestimate India.” That was former NDA finance minister Jaswant Singh in 2004 when supporting FDI in retail.
“Fifty per cent of our population, comprising small traders, street vendors and the self-employed, sustain themselves through retail businesses. The UPA government wants to deprive them of livelihood by allowing FDI in multi-brand retail.” That was another former NDA finance minister Yashwant Sinha last week while protesting FDI in multi-brand retail.
What has really changed between 2004 and 2011 for two former finance ministers of the NDA to adopt such contrarian positions? Frankly, little. Except the fact that in 2004 the NDA under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was an alliance in power; now the NDA is a coalition in opposition, desperate to return to power at the earliest and looking for any opportunity to embarrass the ruling UPA.
If in UPA 1, the NDA did a somersault on the India-US nuclear deal, thereby undermining the Vajpayee legacy on foreign policy, in UPA 2 it’s the economic agenda of the Vajpayee years that is in danger of being abandoned. The NDA alliance which in government pioneered the opening up of the economy in key areas to foreign investment now threatens to turn its back in opposition on the very reforms it once originated.
In a sense, the shift only exposes how contemporary politics is now almost entirely driven by convenience, not conviction. The logjam in Parliament highlights this. The Left, for example, has made common cause with the BJP. Still recovering from the mauling it received in the West Bengal elections, the communists are trying to recapture their traditional ideological space by projecting FDI in retail as an ‘anti-poor’, Washington-dictated agenda. The fact, though, is that the Left’s street-fighting abilities have diminished with time. Its tired slogans and predictable rhetoric make it look increasingly like the party of the past rather than one with any stake in the future.
But while the Left may be a prisoner of ideology, what of the BJP, a party that right through the Vajpayee years had shown a refreshing willingness to balance its ideological moorings with a pragmatic approach to governance? When a Uma Bharti threatens to burn down Walmart stores, when its UP leadership attempts to revive the Ram Mandir campaign, when its national leaders have fanciful notions of bringing back black money to India, when even its reform-friendly leaders warn of dire consequences of enhancing foreign investment limits, then you begin to wonder if the BJP is being pulled back into the emotive and destructive politics of a previous generation.
The Congress, on the other hand, is also in a bind. Having scored a series of self-goals, from 2G to Anna to Telangana, an embattled Congress leadership has been looking to finally break free. As a result, it hastily pushed through the FDI in retail proposal without making any serious attempt to take either the Opposition, its coalition partners or even its own MPs into confidence. To have done so in the middle of a crucial winter session of Parliament was a move always fraught with risk. Political mismanagement and poor communication — the twin banes of UPA 2 — have now returned to haunt the government.
As for the regional parties, they have mastered the art of political brinkmanship. Take the DMK. In 2002, it was its commerce minister in the NDA government, Murasoli Maran, who had pushed for 100% FDI in retail. Today, with the 2G scam having grievously wounded the party, the DMK is opposing FDI only to remind the UPA leadership that its support cannot be taken for granted.
Similarly, Mamata Banerjee knows that she may not be a permanent resident of the Delhi durbar. So while she has the clout, she is determined to leverage it. Banerjee isn’t going to get into a polemical debate on FDI. Her constituency only knows one language: that of a ‘paara’ (neighbourhood) fight. And so for her too, the retail revolution is about the eternal search for an ‘enemy’, in this case the ‘videshi’ store. So, you have the absurdity of West Bengal finance minister Amit Mitra, who was lobbying for retail FDI as Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) secretary general now doing a flip-flop in his new avatar.
Banerjee is not alone. The 15th Lok Sabha, represented by as many as 37 parties, has many streetfighters who choose rhetoric over reason. The result is that Parliament is in real danger of being reduced to a comatose institution. The statistics are frightening. In 1996, the 11th Lok Sabha saw just 9% of the total discussion time in Parliament being lost due to disruptions. The current Lok Sabha now has the distinction of being the most disrupted, with almost 25% of its sittings being stalled. In the 23 days of the 2010 winter session, the Lok Sabha met for seven hours. It’s feared that the 2011 session may well be no different.
Is it any wonder then that a paralysed Parliament has sparked off a populist ‘no work, no pay’ chant among the chattering classes? Our MPs may not realise it, but there is a dangerous cynicism among the electorate that is threatening to spiral out of control. We had a trailer of it during Anna Hazare’s agitation in August when Parliament was besieged by street protests. That should have served as a warning that Parliament needs to get its act together, revive its legislative muscle and become a synthesiser of differing opinion rather than an arena of perpetual conflict. The time for grandstanding and obstructionism is over. Remember, Anna is already threatening us with a sequel!
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 Network
The views expressed by the author are personal