Wal-Mart has an easy day

Helped by the Samajwadi Party and the BSP, the UPA government on Wednesday managed to convincingly defeat two opposition-sponsored motions against foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail and related Foreign Exchange Management Act (Fema) amendments in the Lok Sabha. For the ruling coalition — initially reluctant to put an executive decision to a parliamentary vote — the victory came as blessing in disguise, enabling it to claim parliamentary assent for its reformist agenda.

Government managers were quick to interpret the victory as proof of popular support to its reformist agenda. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: "FDI policy that we have put in place has the approval of this House." Foreign supermarket giants like Wal-Mart, Tesco and Carrefour can now set up shops in India, with the comfort of political backing to the policy.

Although two days of debate on the issue saw the ruling and opposition parties trying to score political brownie points, the SP and BSP, which stridently opposed FDI in retail but had remained ambivalent on their floor strategy, on Wednesday chose to walk out of the Lok Sabha debate "in protest" rather than vote against the government.

Still, a vote on the issue on Friday in the Rajya Sabha, where the government is rather precariously placed, gives reason for the UPA managers to remain on their toes. Although the vote on FDI in retail is only of symbolic value, Fema amendments to allow inflows of foreign money into the sector are indeed needed to implement the decision.

While government functionaries claimed that FDI was a done deal after the Lok Sabha vote, independent observers said it was premature to conclude so before the Rajya Sabha decision on Fema.

In the Lok Sabha, 218 among the 471 members who participated voted in favour of the opposition motion asking for immediate withdrawal of the FDI decision, while 253 voted against it. The total strength of the House is 545. The House also rejected the motion seeking an amendment to the rules notified by the Reserve Bank of India under Fema. While 254 voted in favour of the government, 224 voted against. Members of the SP and BSP, with respective strengths of 22 and 21, did not participate in the voting as they walked out alleging that interests of farmers and small retailers had been ignored.

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