Millennium Post

Debate is soul of democracy

Confusing signals almost amounting to cacophony have been emanating from the Opposition benches, especially the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), ever since the defeat of the motion on the withdrawal of government notification allowing 51 percent foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail. NDA convenor Sharad Yadav on the day after the defeat said if NDA was voted to power in the next general election scheduled for 2014, it will withdraw the current notification of allowing FDI.

While Yadav made boisterous comments he was unable to state what action was purported to be taken against Upendra Kushwaha, the MP belonging to his party - Janata Dal (United), who voted with the government on the matter. He also kept quiet on the absence of his party’s Bihar unit president Bashistha Narayan Singh, who remained absent during the crucial vote in Rajya Sabha.

There was enough embarrassment for the JD(U) inside Rajya Sabha when commerce minister Anand Sharma brought on record a government panel report drafted during the NDA regime under the stewardship of veteran bureaucrat NK Singh, now a JD(U) MP, which was unequivocal in its recommendations favouring entrance of FDI in retail trade. It created quite a stir even leading to the adjournment of proceedings.

Thereafter leaders from JD(U)’s senior partner BJP like Murli Manohar Joshi have echoed similar sentiments as that of Sharad Yadav. Party spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain has gone on to say said that the purpose of forcing a vote on FDI in retail was to expose the ‘double-standards’ practised by Uttar Pradesh rivals – Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

It somehow escapes understanding why the Opposition leaders are out to undo the achievements of a very purposeful debate. The role of the Opposition is not just to bring down the government but also at times to spur it into action. Hopefully the four-day long debate across both the houses of parliament will help to bring the Manmohan Singh government out of the state of policy paralysis and during the remaining 17 months of the current term we could see the government in action.

There has been a discussion on why did the Opposition force the debate under rule 184 which ended in vote leading to the government handsomely defeating the motions. While Hussain and his party leaders in both the houses have given explanation of ‘exposing’ certain parties but they must congratulate themselves for doing a much greater job than doing a ‘sting’ on the SP or the BSP.

The threadbare discussion on the pros and cons of introducing the next generation economic reforms with 22 leaders from 18 political parties participating in the debate in the Lok Sabha alone over two days reiterated the ability of Indian parliament to discuss matters of grave concern with earthy wisdom and intellectual eloquence. With the proceedings being televised live from the floor of the house, there could not have been a better way to put across the different viewpoints to the people of the country, who are sovereign and the right which they would again exercise in 2014 to elect a new government.

Genuine concerns were raised about the possibility of multi-nationals establishing monopoly, displacing the traditional traders. This was countered by assurance from the government about the checks and balances it would put in place to safeguard the interest of the four crore families currently sustaining themselves from retail trade.

Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, who initiated the debate, put the discussion on a very high pedestal with her opening remarks. She was matched for her oration from the government side by Commerce Minister Anand Sharma. Swaraj during the two days of debate in Lok Sabha was in her elements matching the finesse of an erudite Kapil Sibal, the enthusiastic aggression of Deepender Hooda and tomfoolery of Lalu Prasad Yadav.

Amidst all this, the biggest loser was the rabble-rousing team of Arvind Kejriwal. The weekly Aam Admi Party press conference, if I recall correctly, targeting Narendra Modi based on a magazine expose went unheard. The high TRP for parliamentary debate certainly went to show when the law-makers are at work the people have little time for rabble rousers.

High quality debate in parliament would now lead to discussions at the next level of legislature – the state assemblies. Each state wishing to introduce FDI in retail will need to bring an enabling law or executive order which should be put to the scrutiny of local legislature, where local concerns can be voiced and addressed.   

It’s is a cliché to say that in the end democracy is all about numbers. However, it’s also true that a robust democracy is about number count being accompanied by high-level of debate. The first week of December 2012 will be considered a milestone in parliamentary history for re-discovering the culture of debate. The nation witnessed both high-quality debate and also political shenanigans ending in surprise vote count for and against the motion.

UPA may have managed with a better floor coordination than the Opposition but while signalling FDI in, the government would have to bear in mind the sense of the house which was of apprehension about the proposed reforms. The assurances given by the government would be closely scrutinised once the FDI giants step-in. And it’s in the interest of the Congress party that they keep the checks and balances as the states ruled by them would be the first to flag FDI in.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and  consulting editor, Millennium Post
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