Manmohan Singh should get a sense of where the members of the House stand on the latest reforms to reinforce the political legitimacy for further reforms.
he Congress-led United Progressive Alliance should seriously consider convening a special session of Parliament to discuss its recent decisions to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail, hike the price of diesel and cap the number of subsidised LPG cylinders that a household would be entitled to. This could be a ‘Sense of the House’ type of a resolution similar to the one that Parliament passed to persuade Anna Hazare to end his fast for immediate enactment of a Lokpal Bill. There is merit in the Government seeking a specific endorsement of its recent controversial decisions, as a vote of confidence, in any case, becomes inevitable if the Trinamool Congress chief, Mamata Banerjee, formally withdraws support to the ruling alliance, which would willy-nilly force the Government to prove that it enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha. All the more reason, then, for Manmohan Singh himself to take the initiative and go for a vote.
There may be those who argue that the Cabinet approvals providing for FDI in multi-brand retail or diesel price hike were purely executive decisions entailing no legislative amendments and, hence, did not require any parliamentary sanction. But that is a narrow technical interpretation of issues, which, rightly or wrongly, have assumed strong political overtones. And since the President, Pranab Mukherjee, had, as Finance Minister, given an assurance in both Houses last December, at least in the case of FDI in multi-brand retail, that a final decision would be taken after consultations with various stakeholders including political parties, subjecting it to a specific endorsement by members of Parliament is all the more fair. With the Congress alone commanding 206 members in the Lok Sabha, cobbling up the remaining numbers to reach the half-way mark of 272 shouldn’t be difficult. After all, Manmohan Singh survived the 2008 vote of confidence arising from the Indo-US nuclear deal, with the Congress having just 145 members.
A debate in Parliament can, in fact, be an opportunity for the Government to project FDI in retail, for one, as a pro-farmer measure and show the opposition to it coming primarily from entrenched market intermediaries that stand to lose if firms source produce directly from farmers’ fields. The fact that the current middlemen-controlled marketing arrangements are benefiting neither producers nor consumers is an argument that is amenable enough to forceful presentation. By setting the agenda on these terms, the Government could well turn the tables on the Opposition. A decisive debate is necessary now also for the reason that it is the only way to break the current political gridlock. This Government has to show it has the political legitimacy to govern, without which one cannot really expect progress in other crucial reform areas in the months to come.