A quasi-dysfunctional democracy such as India occasionally needs to showcase Parliament’s role in seriously engaging with the pressing issues of the day. The two-day debate in Lok Sabha which resulted in the United Progressive Alliance government securing a grudging approval of its contentious decision to allow a caveat-ridden 51 per cent foreign investment in retail trade may not have fully restored popular faith in an increasingly discredited political class. But it, at least, demonstrated that a large number of MPs (particularly the more seasoned parliamentarians) are aware of issues that extend beyond their state and constituency boundaries.
This may not come as a great revelation to those who look beyond stereotypes of the bumptious neta. However, for the more sceptical breed of Indians, particularly those with modernist and cosmopolitan pretensions, a debate such as this forces a realization that there is a lot of earthy wisdom in India’s political culture than is often admitted.
True, an understanding of the larger international trends in the retail trade, not least of which was the awareness of the contested business practices of the US-based retail giant Walmart, was also accompanied by a great deal of humbug. In the days to come, particularly if the agricultural procurement policies of some foreign retail companies has an unsettling effect on the rural economy of Uttar Pradesh, both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati may be confronted by awkward questions centred on their covert deal to permit a move they held to be anti-farmer and anti-small business. Likewise, if Walmart or any other large retail chain decides to make their presence felt too fast and too aggressively in the national capital, the chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, may find herself challenged by small traders apprehensive of the future.
This is not an unreal prospect. A feature of the determin- ed BJP-Left-Trinamul onslaught against FDI in retail was the invocation of fear. It was suggested that the presence of supermarkets in the large towns would destroy the livelihood of the corner grocery shop, curtail employment, contribute to distortions in agricultural procurement and, in the long run, herald monopolistic practices by the likes of Walmart — already a symbol of ugly Western capitalism. The Nationalist Congress Party’s Praful Patel may have been quite right to remind everyone that India’s entry into the World Trade Organization had been accompanied by similar alarmist propaganda by both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left. But public memory is woefully short and it is quite likely that the same drama may be re-enacted. The only difference is that while globalization was a slow, invisible process, the changes in the business rules of retail trade may be a more visible process. If the Shiv Sena does indeed plan to carry out its threat to smash up any foreign retail chains that dare set up shop in Maharashtra, this particular ‘reform’ may actually witness additional drama.
The Lok Sabha debate also witnessed unending references to the East India Company that came to India as traders and ended up as rulers. Gurudas Dasgupta of the Communist Party of India was particularly emphatic in his assertion that the likes of Walmart also have a political agenda, and that the foreigner could end up exercising control over the way Indians run their democracy.
It is touching to note that despite 20 years of deregulation and the visible success of some facets of economic liberalization, the rhetoric of the Left hasn’t really evolved. Indeed, it can be said with some amusement that it has made some unlikely converts in the BJP. There was little in Murli Manohar Joshi’s amusingly distracted intervention that the comrades would have taken serious objection to. Joshi’s searing indictment of the new imperialism of Walmart, et al, was, however, accompanied by a touching celebration of the unchanging nature of 5,000 years of Indian agricultural techniques. What new technology and techniques can the American firms impart to the Indian farmer who banks on inherited knowledge? Anti-imperialism, it would seem, produces strange bedfellows.
Some reassurance that the Indian Right isn’t merely Marxism plus the cow was, fortunately, provided by the leader of Opposition, Sushma Swaraj, who was at her eloquent and statesman-like best on both days — quite a contrast from Sonia Gandhi who was seen actively endorsing the puerile heckling of Harsimrat Badal by a Congress MP from Punjab. Swaraj at least clarified that her party wasn’t opposed to FDI in infrastructure and high-tech but only to the sale of dal and rice to the Indian consumer. At least, some facets of the National Democratic Alliance inheritance has been preserved by the BJP.
Indeed, a considerable part of the debate was taken up by the question of political inheritance. The BJP made much of the fact that, in 2002, the then Congress chief whip, Priyaranjan Das Munshi, had described FDI in retail as “anti-national” and that Manmohan Singh had opposed any such move a decade ago. On its part, Kapil Sibal beamed in self-satisfaction as he pointed out that it was Murasoli Maran, the commerce minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government, who had first mooted the issue of FDI in retail, and that the NDA manifesto of 2004 promised to allow 26 per cent FDI in that sector.
If the intention of the debate was to demonstrate that inconsistency is the hallmark of partisan politics, Indians who observed the debate would surely have come away with the conclusion that politicians aren’t doctrinaire. In taking the positions they did, both the government and the Opposition had one eye on public opinion. This is natural considering that no one really knows how long the minority government will survive. But is there any reason to believe Mulayam Singh Yadav’s cryptic observation that the UPA will soon realize that reforms that affect too many people will be rejected by the electorate?
There are no simple answers. Nor is it wise to compare this week’s debate with the kerfuffle over the Indo-US nuclear accord when the Lok Sabha was divided along broadly similar lines. The nuclear deal, as it was perceived by the middle classes who were remotely interested in it, was all about India’s relationship with the US. It was about the continuing efficacy of anti-Americanism at a time when the cosmopolitan Indian never had it so good. In opposing it blindly, the BJP was completely out of step with its natural supporters and it paid the price in urban India in the 2009 general election.
The retail FDI debate took place in a different environment. It happened at a time when few are wildly optimistic about the short-term prospects of the economy. It was also held in the backdrop of an intense public furore over corruption and crony capitalism. The Congress obviously calculated that ‘reforms’ is the big idea that will transform the negativity and rekindle hope in the future. That is what Charan Singh’s grandson meant when he spoke about his faith in the larger process of parivartan.
Will the voters buy this logic? Alternatively, will they prefer to view the Congress’s belated faith in reforms as a last ditch attempt to divert attention from three years of paralysis and the enrichment of a favoured few? Anticipating the future is hazardous and prone to misjudgments. The government has come out of its bunker and gambled on the potential appeal of a big idea called ‘reform’. Whatever its other shortcomings, it is at least forward-looking. The BJP cannot hope to counter this by good speeches and platitudes. To prevail, it has to also proffer its version of the good life.