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Vote on FDI buys House peace, worries govt

New Delhi, Nov. 29: Parliament will discuss FDI in multi-brand retail under rules that entail voting, amid extreme unease within a section of the government over an executive decision being put to vote.

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

“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,” the Speaker Meira Kumar said in the Lok Sabha.

Some ministers felt this would 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 had insisted on a vote only to protect a profit-making public sector 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 up 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 backed the government, with both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul 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 looks like the majority in this case.”

But others expressed concern this precedent would be used to paralyse decision-making in future. One senior cabinet minister argued: “It is sad that such pre-conditions are now being set 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?”

Even as this debate continues, the vote has created an immediate worry for the government because the Samajwadi Party has linked its response to a bill for a quota in promotions for Dalits and tribals, which the Samajwadi is opposed to but the BSP wants passed without delay. If the government tries to stall the bill, the BSP will act up.

The UPA needs the support of the two heartland parties, who are expected to walk out instead of voting with the NDA and the Left against FDI.

The debate will start in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday. While the date for the Rajya Sabha hasn’t been fixed, it will be sometime next week. Minister of state for parliamentary affairs Rajiv Shukla had announced that government has agreed to a discussion under rule 168 that entails voting.

This virtual trial of strength, which does not threaten the government’s survival, also gives the Congress an opportunity to test its ability to face future challenges, including passage of the budget early next year.

Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi today claimed support of the majority in both Houses but said it was unfortunate the presiding officers were dictated to 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 conditions for normal proceedings.