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Political Pitch

Balance of power

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COLLISION COURSE: BJP MP Tarun Vijay protests against the government's decision to allow FDI in multi-brand retail. The conflict between the UPA and the Opposition threatens to derail the winter session of Parliament

The battle-lines were drawn even before the winter session of Parliament opened. The Manmohan Singh government was adamant that Parliament had no business voting on the decision to allow FDI in multi-brand retail. It is an executive decision, argued commerce minister Anand Sharma. And never before in the history of Parliament has an executive decision been put to vote, he thundered.

The Opposition was equally insistent that there be a vote. The government has the prerogative to take executive decisions but Parliament has the right to vet policy decisions, Left and BJP leaders countered.
Even as the snowballing confrontation threatened to derail yet another session, it threw up important questions on the role of Parliament in a coalition era, questions that will have to be debated and answered as the prospect of single-party majority rule recedes and governance becomes a casualty. And there could be no better starting point than the ongoing storm over retail FDI.

Let's take a look at the issues on the table. The decision to open up the multi-brand retail sector to FDI is well within the domain of the executive. It does not require legislative amendment, unlike other contentious proposals like increasing FDI in insurance, banking and pension funds. These require changes in the law and therefore will have to be passed by Parliament. Simple Cabinet approval is sufficient for retail FDI, after which the government has to table the policy change in Parliament. The Opposition has rarely questioned executive policy decisions in the past because the party in power has traditionally had a clear majority in Parliament, vesting it with authority from the people to frame policy for five years.

But times have changed. Over the past 20 years, no party has been able to come to power on its own strength and governments have been formed by forging an alliance of disparate forces. Often, they do not see eye-to-eye on issues, sparking off a showdown that threatens untimely demise of a government. A case in point was the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, which almost caused the Manmohan Singh government to fall after the Left pulled out. It survived after a dubious trust vote which saw Parliament hit a low point as wads of cash were brandished in the Lok Sabha.

The retail FDI decision has sparked a similar flashpoint with the Trinamool Congress withdrawing support to the government. UPA 2 survives now at the mercy of the SP and BSP which are propping it up from the outside. Yet, ironically, both these parties, as well as the DMK which is an official member of the ruling alliance, are opposed to FDI in multi-brand retail. The question then is this: can the Congress steamroller a major policy shift like retail FDI on the strength of its less-than-adequate numbers in Parliament in the face of opposition from various shades of political opinion including its own partners?

CPM leader Nilotpal Basu argues that it cannot. "The so-called prerogative of the executive was based on the understanding that the executive reflected the majority of Parliament. This is no longer true so the logic does not hold, " he insists. He believes the time has come to redefine the role of Parliament. "Governments in a coalition era cannot hide behind tightly structured, rigid interpretations of Parliament's powers, " he maintains.

Interestingly, the issue has always arisen only when the Congress has been at the helm of affairs in a coalition situation. Perhaps it still hasn't shed the old mindset of single-party rule. The Vajpayee-led NDA government, for instance, permitted a vote on its decision to divest government shares in the stateowned BALCO. This too was an executive decision but when the Left made a noise, the government put it to vote in Parliament. It won the day. "We did not stand on prestige, like the UPA government, " says BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad, who was coal minister at the time and oversaw the sale. "This government is afraid of facing Parliament because it knows that it does not have the numbers for approval of a momentous decision like FDI in multi-brand retail. "

Similarly, when the United Front government was in power, I K Gujral as foreign minister twice asked for a 'Sense of the House' resolution on the US demand that India sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Now, foreign policy and foreign treaties such as CTBT are quite clearly an executive prerogative but perhaps Gujral understood the need to have Parliament's backing for the decision not to give in to US pressure. 'Sense of the House' is actually an American concept and the Congress threw this argument at the Left when it demanded a similar resolution on the nuclear deal. The Left lost that battle because it became a game of numbers in the Lok Sabha and the Congress won handsomely. CPM leader Prakash Karat, who provoked that confrontation, is bitter even today, claiming that the Congress "bought" the support of 19 opposition MPs to sail through the confidence vote.

The stalwarts who wrote the Constitution did not envisage a time when no political party would win a majority on its own. Yet, the debates of the Constituent Assembly reveal that there was an overwhelming opinion that keeping executive decisions out of parliamentary purview should be only an interim measure. Ten years is what was suggested. It's a different matter that because of the domination of the Congress for the first 40 years of independent rule, no one thought to go back to those debates and reopen the issue.

Perhaps the time has come now. Parliament is the highest forum in a democracy. Although it hasn't acquitted itself well in recent years, falling prey to frequent disruptions and adjournments, that's no reason to devalue it as both the ruling and opposition parties are prone to do. A coalition era requires the fine art of consensus building. There is no better place for this than the floor of Parliament. Getting governments to submit themselves to parliamentary oversight on important policy matters could go a long way in bringing a modicum of transparency in decision-making.

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