The government's decision to allow
51 percent foreign investment in multi-brand retail outlets, and
cent percent in the single brand ones, may prove to be as much of
a game changer as the nuclear deal.
If the deal was a momentous development because of the
international community's unprecedented acceptance of India as a
nuclear power, although it hasn't signed the non-proliferation
treaty, the opening up of the retail sector marks the start of the
long-awaited second generation reforms, which can give a fresh
boost to the economy.
Politically, too, it will reflect creditably on the ruling
Congress for its boldness in taking a step despite the vehement
opposition not only from the left to the right of the political
spectrum - from the communists to the 'communalists' - but also
from two of the Congress's own allies and even from sections
within the party.
But, just as the nuclear deal saw the government reject the
Nehruvian paradigm of non-alignment by moving close to US,
similarly, the latest step in economic reforms heralds an
unmistakable departure from another Nehruvian shibboleth -
establishing a socialistic pattern of society, as enunciated by
the Congress in 1955.
It is noteworthy that both these definitive breaks with the
party's own past is the handiwork of Manmohan Singh, an unassuming
prime minister who, as Amartya Sen once noted, is incapable of
raising his voice. Yet, few will deny that this architect of
India's economic buoyancy has raised India's profile in the
international arena, where an Indian passport holder today is
treated with respect in foreign airports.
In contrast to the courage shown by the prime minister and the
party in charting a new course, the opposition has again exposed
itself as comprising opportunistic curmudgeons with a blinkered
outlook who are unable to come to terms with a changing world.
What is strange is that while the Left's dogmatic obduracy can
explain its rejection of both the nuclear deal and foreign direct
investment (FDI) in retail, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata
Party's (BJP) unwritten alliance with the comrades on both the
issues is inexplicable. That the BJP's leftward slide has nothing
to do with ideology was evident from leader L.K. Advani's
assurance to US diplomats, as revealed by Wikileaks, that the
party would accept the nuclear deal if it came to power.
It was obviously unadulterated opportunism which guided the BJP
then as it is doing now. In following this cynical path, the party
is apparently willing to alienate its own middle class base again,
as it did on the nuclear issue. But, it neither has the broadness
of vision to see that both these measures open up immense
potentials for the country, nor the generosity of mind to support
the Congress. Instead, it has chosen to make unremitting
cussedness the cornerstone of its outlook.
If some of the other parties, including the Congress's allies like
the Trinamool Congress and DMK, have displayed similar purblind
stubbornness, the reason is their limited vision, which is
confined to the political compulsions of their respective states,
and an inability to comprehend the economic implications of a step
which will take several years to make an impact.
The Trinamool Congress's fear is that the Communists, its main
opponents in West Bengal, will accuse it of meekly acquiescing in
the centre's "anti-people" and pro-capitalist policies while the
scam-tainted DMK, under an aging patriarch and his squabbling
sons, does not seem to have either the energy or an adequate
intellectual grasp of the subject to define either its objections
or its support.
There is also probably a socialistic streak in its outlook, which
is a common feature of most Indian parties because they have been
reared in an atmosphere of anti-British and anti-American
imperialism and a Gandhian preference for swadeshi or nationalism.
It is this mindset which has made the crusader against corruption
Anna Hazare, who has been described by well-known political
scientist Ashis Nandy, as a well-meaning, "if slightly dumb",
neighbourhood elder, to evoke the machinations of the East India
Company of the 17th century to take over India via trade.
Then, there are others like Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati,
who has described the giant multinational retailers as the foreign
"friends" of Rahul Gandhi to draw attention to the Congress heir-apparent's
foreignness and thereby undercut his electoral challenge,
evidently because she is more wary of him than of any other
opponent during the forthcoming state assembly elections.
It is these unthinking, knee-jerk responses of the opposition
parties which explain why, at the end of the day, the Congress
almost invariably comes out on top. While the others adhere to
hackneyed, outdated ideas with an eye on immediate gains, the
Congress, despite the charges of corruption and vote-bank
expediency, does have the broad picture of national advancement in
mind. And if anyone deserves to be congratulated on this account,
it is Manmohan Singh, the reformer. After a period in the
political badlands, he is back.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at