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Centre digs in heels on FDI in retail

On Board the Prime Minister’s Aircraft, Nov. 18: Union commerce minister Anand Sharma has stressed the retail FDI policy is “cast in stone” and a government can’t be expected to have an executive decision endorsed by an “ideological Opposition with blinkers” or by parties that “pursue partisan agendas”.

Sharma rued this was the first time in India’s democracy that an executive decision was dragged into a parliamentary motion but added the government was “confident of continuing its good work”.

The allusion was to Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s announcement that she would move a no-confidence motion against the UPA government over its economic policies, including the decision to allow FDI in multi-brand retail.

Sharma, the only minister accompanying Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the East Asia and Asean-India summits that begin in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh from tomorrow, conceded there could be differences of opinion.

“A democracy has space for difference of opinion. Indeed, a government would expect its political opponents to take a position in regard to policy decisions,” he said, but added a motion in Parliament against an executive decision was unprecedented.

Singh and his government have sought to expand and enlarge India’s economic footprints not just in its immediate eastern neighbourhood but the Asean block that includes potential high-growth nations like Vietnam and the Philippines apart from old tiger economies Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Against this backdrop, Sharma’s unambiguous message is that the government will not turn its back on the renewed reforms drive or dilute its position under political and parliamentary exigencies.

Sharma denied suggestions the government had timed the retail decision “inappropriately”. “It’s high time that a realisation dawns on all those concerned that shrill discourses and sensationalism have damaged India's image and economy. In a constitutional democracy, if issues get resolved, you don’t need the Opposition's discourse when institutions and agencies are doing their work.”

“The government had to take the decision. It’s an executive decision taken after intense consultations with all the stakeholders, stretching over two years.” “While taking the decision, the Centre respected the letter and spirit of the Constitution. The decision to implement has been left to the states. There are large agrarian, land-locked states crying for implementation. They can’t be deprived of it in a democracy,” he added.

He recalled that not so long ago, the Centre was accused of “policy paralysis”. “When a decision is not taken, it’s policy paralysis. When it is done, it’s bad timing.”

Sharma said India was not fazed by global retail major Walmart’s move to institute an internal probe into allegations of bribery. The investigation into the alleged violation of a US anti-bribery law in the company’s Mexico operations has been extended to China, India and Brazil.

“First of all, allegations are allegations. In a rule-based country, if there are violations, there are also agencies and authorities to look into it. We have a policy in place and no violations could have taken place. It’s a good progress from the third week of September (when the union cabinet initialled the retail FDI decision) to now. I do not foresee a situation when the enthusiasm of investors will be dampened (because of the probe).”Among the bilateral meetings Prime Minister Singh is slated to hold between today and Tuesday, when he leaves for home, is one with outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao tonight.

Asked if the regime change in Beijing would impact China’s equations with India, Sharma said: “The (Communist) party Congress concluded successfully. There is continuity and stability in our relationship and engagements. We had plenty of opportunities to meet the new leadership in government-to-government and structured party-to-party engagements. In India, we have a government that is confident, stable and committed to bringing forward its major initiatives in proven national interest.”

The minister described China as an important “partner country” with which India had sought more collaborations in big infrastructure projects and manufacturing.