(First appeared in The Pioneer dated December 8, 2011)
The Congress-led UPA Government is slipping deeper and deeper into a coma of poor governance. But the BJP, which is its main rival and is favourably placed to win the next Lok Sabha election in 2014, should focus on that challenge, instead of trying to further discredit an already doomed regime. The BJP should not confuse issues on which it should hang the Congress-led Government with those that it should exploit to tactically back it and harvest real gains in the coming months. There is no reason why the Congress should be allowed to get away with its sob story that its pro-reform policies are being killed by an obstinate Opposition.
As an example, let us take the furore over the Government’s proposal to invite foreign direct investment up to 51 per cent in multi-brand retail. Forget the developments in Parliament over the issue. Also keep aside the protests of the Left parties that are forever hallucinating on the supposed takeover of the Indian economy by ‘imperialist, capitalist, profiteering sharks’. The most significant development is the vehement and the very public opposition of Congress allies like the Trinamool Congress and the DMK to the UPA Government’s decision. Even more embarrassing to the Government has been the increasing number of Congressmen who have gone on record against the move to get FDI in multi-brand retail. This is the sorry situation the Congress has been in, and it is a situation that the BJP ought to have cleverly exploited. But what did the principal opposition party do? It merely added its voice to the clamour, and became part of the chorus. What’s the big deal, then?
The party had an option, and a tempting one at that, if only it had seen far and wide. The BJP could have inflicted a masterstroke by backing the Government on the issue. Imagine the embarrassment of the Congress in being bailed out by, of all parties, the BJP, while its own allies are opposed to it. The BJP’s tactical support would have fully exposed the UPA for the fragmented group that it is on the FDI issue, and left it vulnerable for the rest of its tenure. If the Government had in that situation refused the offer of support from the BJP it would have been accused of cussedness and lack of commitment to stand by its decision on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. On the other hand, by accepting the support it would have further angered its allies. That could have facilitated a separation with them. Either way the BJP would have benefitted.
If the BJP had done the ‘unthinkable’, the party would have gained in two other ways: One, it would have collected applause for rising above partisan politics; and two, it would have lived up to its image of being the party that was the first to have strongly spoken in favour of FDI in multi-brand retail. After all, it was the NDA Government under the prime ministership of Atal Bihar Vajpayee that had strongly favoured the opening of various sectors of the Indian economy to global markets. The BJP, being the major constituent of the NDA, had then naturally basked in the glory of being a pro-reform party. Therefore, supporting the UPA on the issue would have been a natural extension of that thinking, and not some sudden disruption in the BJP’s ideology.
On the contrary, by adding its voice to the opponents of the decision, the BJP faced a tough time justifying its changed stance. Although it had valid points for the change in its position, the general impression that got around is that the party had shifted its position out of opportunism. After all, support to FDI was part of the NDA’s election manifesto for 2004, though it was not part of the BJP’s agenda. Had the NDA won in 2004, the BJP then as its main constituent would have honoured its promise and opened up retail to foreign direct investment.
The BJP realises that rhetoric cannot substitute informed opinion, nor can fiery comments be given primacy over cool-headed discussions to resolve the bone of contention. A BJP leader’s reported remark that she would gladly reduce to ashes a foreign multi-brand store may provide warmth to her supporters in the coming winter chill, but it does not, thankfully, reflect the thinking of the senior leadership, which is articulate and informed. It is one thing if leaders of regional parties that have no vision or purpose other than to exploit caste and communal considerations to gain power make such outrageous comments, But a responsible national party like the BJP can do without such statements. Instead, the party should offer facts and figures that establish the dangers of allowing foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail.
Perhaps the BJP believes that any form of support to FDI in retail will boomerang on it in the coming Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. But political considerations alone cannot be the reason for a shift in stand. Moreover, it is presumptuous to assume that the vast majority of the people are against FDI in retail. The frenzy let loose by politicians of various shades against the decision is largely orchestrated and is no firm indicator of any spontaneous mass anger against FDI.
Let us accept for a moment that the BJP cannot possibly have brazenly bailed out the UPA from a crisis that the latter created for itself by its ill-timed decision. Still, given its earlier support to FDI and to avoid the embarrassment (that it now faces) of a complete reversal in its position, the BJP could have nuanced its opposition and left the doors open to some sort of a compromise. It could have, for instance, handled the issue like it did with the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Bill — allowing it to be passed in the Lok Sabha after enforcing amendments to raise the liability cap on suppliers in case of accidents.
The comparison makes sense, although one has to do with legislative approval and other is an executive decision. Like in the FDI case, the BJP’s public position on the civil nuclear deal with the US had been that of a positivist. This was in contrast to that of the Left parties which opposed the agreement lock, stock and barrel — like they have done in retail.
The BJP pursued the reservations it had on some provisions of the deal, while sending across the signal that it was not opposed to the Bill in principle. The end result has been a stronger civil nuclear liability Act.
In the case of FDI in retail, the party could have adopted a similar tactic and pressured the Government into announcing concrete measures that would adequately protect domestic interests in the face of competition from foreign multi-brand retailers.
Sadly, it thought that instant gratification made more political sense. It is true that the Opposition did achieve a sort of victory by compelling the Government to suspend the decision to have FDI in multi-brand retail. But it would have been better if the BJP had coerced the UPA into tweaking the policy in such a way that the decision for FDI need not have been scrapped, but accepted with the kind of amendments the Opposition wanted to protect domestic interests.
There is no need for the BJP to continue flogging a dying horse.