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Walmart lobbying row disrupts House

New Delhi, Dec. 11: The government today agreed to order an inquiry into allegations that retail giant Walmart spent millions of dollars on lobbying to enter Indian markets, but differences over the nature of the probe forced disruptions in both Houses of Parliament.

While the Opposition demanded a time-bound investigation by a joint parliamentary committee (JPC), the government appeared reluctant and was thinking of announcing some sort of a probe tomorrow.

The Congress leadership, which met this morning, felt the JPC demand was aimed at keeping the issue alive politically to undermine the government’s recent victory in the FDI vote.

“The government is as much concerned as the House and has no hesitation in having a probe into this,” parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath said amid a ruckus by a joint Opposition. “We want to get to the facts of this matter. This is not a matter of concern for just the Opposition, it is a concern for all of us.”

He promised to announce a mechanism for the probe later in the day but the plan got derailed as the Opposition stuck to the JPC demand. The BJP said it was also open to a judicial inquiry.

The issue also reached the Supreme Court, which agreed to take up on January 22 a plea for a directive to the government to produce before it Walmart’s purported disclosure statement in the US Senate.

According to reports, the retail major said it spent close to $25 million (about Rs 125 crore) since 2008 on lobbying US lawmakers, including on issues related to “enhanced market access for investment in India”.

In Parliament, Opposition members accused the government of accepting bribes for allowing foreign retailers, while some even claimed Walmart had manipulated the FDI vote.

Information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari said the BJP was making allegations without verifying the facts. Sources in the government said top Congress leaders were “aghast” by the Opposition’s “irresponsible and slanderous” attack “which also smacked of a lack of understanding of the processes of business and law in the United States”.

“The Opposition believes one part of the Walmart statement but disbelieves the other part,” Congress spokesperson Rashid Alvi told a media conference. “They disclosed the lobbying expenses but also said nothing illegal had been done and no bribe was paid in India.”

Walmart’s India partner, Bharti Walmart, denied allegations that it had spent money in India to gain market access. A statement it issued yesterday said: “These allegations are entirely false. The expenditures are a compilation of expenses associated with staff, association dues, consultants and contributions spent in the US. Our Washington office naturally had discussions with US government officials about a range of trade and investment issues that impact our businesses in the US and worldwide and disclosed this in accordance with the law.”

But Opposition MPs launched into the government. While the CPI’s Gurudas Dasgupta said “my heart beats in shame as I am an Indian”, the BJP’s Yashwant Sinha declared: “This area is called Lutyen’s Delhi. This has come true now. Those in power are only looting, it should be renamed Loot-eyan’s Delhi.”

Trinamul Congress MP Kalyan Banerjee referred to Nath’s announcement and said: “The minister said the government would order an enquiry. By whom? By whom — those who are the recipients of this lobbying money will do the enquiry. That will be a great fun of the enquiry itself. I demand a JPC…”

The Biju Janata Dal’s Tathagata Satpathy went a step further, saying it was a “shame that the people claiming themselves to be governing this country are mired in corruption, (and had) dirtied their hands and soul because of the diktats of some foreign country”.

The deputy Speaker, who was in the chair, announced that the objectionable expressions would be expunged. The BJP, CPM, CPI, AIADMK and the Janata Dal (U) asked for a JPC.

The Samajwadi Party, which offers outside support to the government, and ally RJD also wanted a probe.

The Rajya Sabha, too, was disrupted in the morning when the BJP’s Venkaiah Naidu raised the Walmart issue.


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