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Led by Modi, BJP returns to ‘foreign’ card

New Delhi, Sept. 15: The BJP has attributed the Prime Minister’s decision to open up retail to foreign direct investment to his alleged partiality for “foreigners”, with a dig at Sonia Gandhi’s Italian birth.

Narendra Modi began it, labelling Manmohan Singh a “Singham (lion) for foreigners” and asking how many “Italian businessmen” would benefit.

“You (Singh) are allowing foreign traders to enter India. What would be the percentage of businessmen from Italy who will come to India to run groceries? The country wants to know,” the Gujarat chief minister, who has kicked off his Assembly polls campaign, said in Bhavnagar.

Other BJP leaders took the cue but the party’s efforts to attract wider support on the economic plank failed to take off, with a loose Left-led grouping announcing its separate agitation programme.

The NDA will organise a general strike on September 20 to oppose the diesel price hike, LPG subsidy phase-out and retail FDI. On the same day, the Left, Samajwadi Party, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam and others will hold their own demonstrations across the country on the same issues.

Modi accused Singh of “shying” away from fighting corruption and added: “In the last eight years of his rule, I have seen the Prime Minister showing spine and holding his head high only twice.

“The first time, when he was signing the nuclear treaty with the US and his allies were opposing it. He said, ‘If my government has to go, let it go; I will sign the nuclear treaty at any cost’. For the second time, the Prime Minister has again done it for the foreigners, so that they can come here to conquer the trade of India and take away jobs.”

He later tweeted: “See the double standards! PM cites coalition compulsions for corruption but shows spine in furthering foreign interests.”

BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar accused the Centre of allowing FDI in retail under “international pressure”. He told reporters in Bangalore that retail FDI was “not the country’s need at this moment”.

“As far as Walmart goes, it won’t come for charity. It is coming for profit, it wants a market,” he said. Javadekar added that a similar measure to allow FDI in single-brand retail 10 years ago had not led to a heavy flow of investment.

He clarified that the BJP was not against FDI and wanted it in technology and strategic sectors.

Lok Sabha Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj, who likes to retain an identity independent of Modi, provided her own spin. In a tweet, she charged the government with a “blatant betrayal” of an “assurance” it had made to Parliament last December.

Pranab Mukherjee, the then finance minister, had said the decision to allow 51 per cent FDI in multi-brand retail stood suspended till a “consensus was developed through consultation amongst various stakeholders”.

Government sources said Singh was within his rights to implement the decision through an executive fiat rather than seeking Parliament’s ratification.

Sources in the loose Left-led coalition said that apart from the political costs of consorting with the BJP, they had another reason for keeping their distance. They were “wary” of the BJP’s “real” agenda in opposing retail FDI.

The NDA’s 2004 pre-election vision document (the BJP did not release an independent manifesto that year) had said it might open up retail for FDI. In 2009, the BJP manifesto, authored by swadeshi votary Murli Manohar Joshi, junked the assurance.

BJP leaders failed to explain the turnaround clearly. One of them claimed that the NDA was for FDI in “structured” retail but not in “blanket” retail, without explaining the difference.

BJP sources admitted the party had not properly considered the matter in a “larger” perspective and that today’s reactions were “instinctive and intuitive”.

A viewer reaction to Sushma’s tweet encapsulated the BJP’s dilemma: “Ma’am, middle class is the only vote u expect to get. With such stance u will lose that vote.”