Lose-lose proposition

Now that Parliament has decided the matter, the BJP's opposition to the executive decision permitting FDI in multi-brand retail raises more questions than it answered. During the debates in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, it failed to convey whether the focus of its ire was foreign capital or organised retail, or if its resentment was primarily driven by not having been consulted by the government. It suggested all three, with talk of global behemoths bullying farmers, of hypermarkets wiping out kirana stores (applicable to big domestic chains as well), and of how the will of other political parties had been steamrollered by the UPA. In the end, its stand in the House was not only a repudiation of its own established economic orientation, it was also a political failure. The government managed to sail through with comfortable numbers in both Houses, with some adroit alliance-building. For all the BJP's claims about the "sense of the House", the majority of the MPs voted for FDI in retail.

By provoking a debate on a matter where the UPA stands on firm ground, the BJP effectively gave the government a golden opportunity to look like a force of reform. FDI in retail has clear benefits for farmers, consumers, and the GDP. While the government laid out these evident advantages, the BJP, itself an erstwhile champion of the idea, appeared either hypocritical, or suddenly seized with misgiving about the very nature of economic liberalisation and globalisation. Either way, it helped the government look better than it arguably deserves to. Unable to keep itself together until recently, riddled with corruption scandals, policy mis-steps and a crisis of authority, the UPA has now been bolstered by both the debate and the parliamentary vote.

Given all the other chinks in the UPA's armour, the BJP's decision to choose FDI in retail as the point of contention is especially puzzling. Even the tepid Bharat Bandh did not convince the BJP that it was flogging the wrong issue. Now, as it looks back on this episode, it must ask itself why its political instincts fail it at critical moments, making it seize upon the wrong cause, look pettish rather than forceful. Whether it was obstructing parliamentary debate over an entire session for a 2G JPC, making common cause with Team Anna and Baba Ramdev, or refusing to discuss coal allocation in Parliament but making a big din outside, the principal opposition party has repeatedly wasted its many chances to seriously show up the UPA.

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