At home in the House

After being taken to the streets, rallies and TV studios, FDI in retail is finally being discussed in Parliament. This may be a debate forced upon the government with the threat of persistent parliamentary obstruction, and submitting executive policy to voting in the House may be an extraordinary step that could be routinised at the system's peril. But it is illuminating, nonetheless, to see the play of perspectives on the floor of the House. Parliament remains the ultimate aggregate of various interests, the only forum where it is possible to see the array of pressure groups and constituencies that are the stuff of politics in a diverse democracy like India.

At one level, this debate only compiles the standard arguments on every side. Small brave shopkeepers, predatory multinational corporations, prudent housewives and hopeful job-seekers figured in Sushma Swaraj's anti-FDI rhetoric. Kapil Sibal laid out the ways in which it would benefit consumers and farmers, shore up back-end infrastructure and reduce farm wastage, and argued that big-box retailers and small business can coexist, pointing to how KFC has not dislodged dhabas, as was once feared. He also said that the BJP's views flipped around, depending on its political stakes, on whether it was in government or opposition. That applies equally to the Congress, however, which had ferociously opposed the idea when the NDA proposed it.

The arguments may range from the self-serving and inconsistent to the rigorous and reasoned, yet this unfolding debate in the House once again foregrounds the fact that a policy is rarely a neutral, virtuous thing. The idea of a single lofty "public interest" is a fiction. Like many consequential government decisions, FDI in retail is a trade-off and a struggle between different interests. Small traders are a vocal, politically organised lobby that punches far above its weight, farmers' groups are more diffuse and disagree with each other on the effects of FDI in retail. Consumers are rarely harnessed as a political force. With FDI in retail, some constituencies are likely to suffer, some jobs will be lost, at least in the short term. The gains for others, and for the economy as a whole, are immensely greater. This Parliament debate gives us an opportunity to see the way in which these various social forces and groups direct political behaviour. It is not free deliberation on retail FDI, given that MPs will be constrained by party whips. It is, however, a robust demonstration of politics in action.

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