Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rahul Gandhi supports PM on FDI in retail….now can we see some decisive action????

So much hullaballoo was made about Rahul and Sonia Gandhi not openly supporting the government on the announcement of allowing 51% FDI in multi-brand retail. So much analysis was carried out in media about why Sonia chose not to speak on the issue at the youth Congress rally after the PM had strongly supported it – wasn’t that after all a clear sign that she didn’t back the move? So much mocking of the Congress was done by the BJP on the same matter. And now it turns out – all of that was unnecessary and premature. Rahul Gandhi has now openly backed the PM’s initiative on FDI in multi-brand retail.

Rahul Gandhi’s full-throated support of the FDI policy should be a bit of a wet blanket on the plans of those who wanted to embarrass both the Congress party and the government. It should also serve as a warning to members of his own party who were unsure about where he stood. Here’s more. Rahul spoke at a farmer’s rally in UP scotching any thoughts anyone may have had that the party was unsure – or even afraid – of what the farmers’ reaction might be. In fact, he converted the complex subject into an easy-to-understand pro-v/s-anti farmer issue by linking it directly with the benefits the farm sector could get from FDI. With farmers staring at huge quantities of their produce rotting in their farms, the point was driven home with much effect.

This is not the first time that an attempt has been made to create the impression that there is a discord between the party and the government. There have been media reports about the Sonia v/s Manmohan tug of war on the number of poor to be covered and the benefits to be provided under the Food Security Act. There have been other stories in the papers which have suggested that Sonia’s backing for the PM had waned over the last year or so.

Much focus has been on the discussions that took place at the cabinet meeting in which the decision on the FDI issue was taken. There were several ministers who were opposed to allowing FDI in retail – or were opposed to it atleast at this point in time. Likewise, I remember about a year back, there were reports that several ministers (Sunil Dutt being one of them) had opposed Kalmadi being made in charge of the CWG. In the end, the PM had taken the decision to anoint him in this role. In all such cases, internal discussions and debates have been portrayed as signs of dissensions and divisions within the party. It’s almost as if every minister is expected to enter a meeting having exactly the same views as all others. If there are different view-points, it’s as if that’s a sign of a rift. Isn’t the whole purpose of a meeting that of getting different views on board and then developing some sort of an agreed position? When a decision goes wrong (like it did in the case of Kalmadi), isn’t it a little unfair to bring up the objections raised by some ministers – and use that to allege that the decision was taken not on merits but on other considerations?

Hopefully this support from Rahul Gandhi should silence the critics of this government a bit. Not only is the party behind the PM, it is also solidly committed to reform. This support hasn’t come a moment too early. The party has been struggling and that’s leading to a sense of economic gloom in the country.

What should we hope now going forward – now that there appears to be a little better communication between the party and the government? Well…..the PM has made a couple of bold statements on his trip to Russia. He did say that FDI in retail would be taken up afresh after the UP elections were over. How he will manage Mamata remains to be seen. Will the recent spate of troubles in WB (the hospital tragedy; the hooch disaster) and a definitive chiding that Mamata has been getting by being compared to the Left parties make her change her stance? The PM also stated that the Koodankulam nuclear plant would commence power production in two weeks time. That was enough to stir up the protestors into action. How does the PM plan to tackle the protestors? Jayalalitha appears to be in no mood to back the PM. Does the PM plan to use the Mullaperiyar dam issue to soften her up (by asking his government in Kerala to tone down the rhetoric)? All this calls for astute political management. Somehow, I am just not confident that the PM or his party is up to all this.

The one big issue on which the PM can leave an indelible mark is the Lokpal bill which is likely to get introduced in Parliament on Tuesday. The PM doesn’t have many options left. It is widely expected that he will agree to include himself and the Group C officials under the Lokpal; chances are that the citizen’s grievances part will also be put into the Lokpal bill; but this is not going to be enough to satisfy Anna. I hope the PM doesn’t succumb to the pressure to hand over the CBI to the Lokpal. If he does that, it will create a monster of an institution – make it perhaps the only institution in the democratic free world to have the powers of investigation, prosecution and adjudication all with itself. The move to provide reservations in the Lokpal will be grudgingly accepted by Anna – but will win the PM support from some smaller (but very noisy) parties. How the Lokpal issue is handled will depend very significantly on how the BJP plays its cards. At present, the BJP appears keen to corner the Congress on the CBI issue, even though its own stand is not entirely clear. I don’t think the BJP wants the CBI under the Lokpal either; I think they want it to be made autonomous – but this remains to be seen. Without the BJP’s support, will the Lokpal bill go through at all? If it doesn’t, will Anna go through with his threat of a fast and a jail-bharo agitation? How will the government handle that agitation? Will it call for a special session of Parliament? The PM should lead this process from the front – but again, I am not too confident he will be able to handle it with strength.

But one thing is clear. The PM does enjoy the support of Sonia and Rahul. And by extension, that of the party. The PM needs to stick his neck out a bit now; not worrying too much about what will happen if he does that. No one wants an early election; no one is going to topple the government. The FDI in retail is an executive decision; he doesn’t need Parliamentary approval for it. He has to show some guts in running his government. I think if he does that, he will get the support from his allies also.

The real truth is that the stories of a discord within the Congress party are widely exaggerated. The Gandhis are strongly behind the PM. Can the PM now use this to his advantage? Or will the state of paralysis continue????

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