Vote on FDI buys uneasy house peace

New Delhi, Nov. 29: Amid extreme unease within a section of the government over an executive decision being put to vote in Parliament, there will be discussions in both Houses on allowing FDI in multi-brand retail under rules that entail voting.

The winter session of Parliament began functioning normally today only after the government agreed to the condition set by the NDA and the Left, even as sources revealed that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and several top ministers were opposed to this kind of a compromise as it creates an unhealthy precedent.

Some ministers felt this will severely undermine the mandate the government enjoys to take decisions. They rejected the Balco precedent, arguing the Opposition had then not questioned the government's disinvestment policy and insisted on a vote only to protect a profit-making public undertaking from being sold at an undervalued rate.

The Vajpayee government had sold 51 per cent of the Bharat Aluminium Co Ltd (Balco) to Sterlite Industries and the Opposition forced a debate followed by voting on March 1, 2001, in the Lok Sabha alleging corruption in the deal. However, some important Congress leaders see merit in the Opposition's logic that opening the retail sector is a far bigger issue than corruption in Balco and believe the stiff parliamentary resistance only reflects the robustness of India's democracy.

Requesting anonymity because the party has fully come out in support of the government, with both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul explicitly extolling the virtues of FDI, one senior leader told The Telegraph: "We were forced to make a much stronger law, with several unique safeguards, only because of the stiff opposition. We must respect the views of what look likes the majority in this case."

But the concern on the other side is about this precedent being used to paralyse the decision-making process in future. One senior cabinet minister argued: "It is sad that such pre-conditions are now being given to run Parliament. What will happen if the Opposition demands vote on a few executive decisions in every session? What if the government is told by a foreign country to take parliamentary approval before signing an agreement?"

This debate will continue for long but the vote is now going to create other worries for the government as the SP has linked its response to the bill on quota in promotions for SC/ST which the BSP wants passed without delay. If the government tries to stall this bill, the BSP will create problems. The government cannot defeat the Opposition without help from these two parties, which are expected to walk out instead of voting with the NDA and the Left.

The debate will start in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday next while the timing in Rajya Sabha hasn't been fixed though it will happen next week only. This virtual trial of strength, though it doesn't affect the Government's longevity, also gives an opportunity to the Congress to test its ability to face future challenges, including the no-confidence motion and passage of budget early next year. Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi today claimed support of the majority in both the Houses though he said it was unfortunate the presiding officers were dictated on the nature of debate and an executive decision was being put to vote.

Alvi argued that democracy would be strengthened if Parliament functioned according to rules and the opposition refrained from setting pre-conditions for normal proceedings. Both the Houses began normal work today after Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar said in the morning, "I have received 30 notices for discussion on FDI in multi-brand retail under Rule 184. I have admitted the motion to allow the discussion." In the Rajya Sabha, minister of state for parliamentary affairs Rajiv Shukla said, the Government has agreed to a discussion on FDI under rule 168 that entails voting.

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