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Mamata and government's FDI 'climbdown'

Sunday December 04, 2011 07:27:05 PM, Anurag Dey, IANS

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Kolkata: You can always bet on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to come up with surprises, be high on drama and keep people guessing and bewildered. All these elements were in abundant display when she announced Saturday that the central government has decided to keep on hold its decision to allow foreign equity in retail.

The basis of her immensely significant statement were two telephonic conversations with union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee earlier in the day. The Trinamool Congress supremo quoted the veteran Congress troubleshooter, who had hours back visited her ailing mother in a state-run hospital: "He has told me that the centre has decided to suspend implementation of the decision to allow FDI in retail. He has told me that the decision will not be implemented unless consensus was evolved on the issue."

It was like a magician producing a rabbit out of her hat. Banerjee seemed ga ga over the triumph of her party, which had been vehemently opposing the United Progressive Alliance regime's move to allow 51 percent foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail.

She made it a point to mention that the rethink was done "after I spoke to Pranabda", and reminded everyone that her party was the first to oppose the decision of the union cabinet.

"The issue is now over. They have taken a pro-people decision now. The issue is now settled," she said.

But "settled" it was definitely not, at least after Banerjee's media meet at the state secretariat, with the unexpected announcement leaving mediapersons agape. In fact, many national and local media houses went unrepresented at the meet.

The suddenness of the announcement raised more questions than it answered.

Firstly, notwithstanding her status as the unquestioned leader of the second largest partner in the UPA, she was neither a part of the union government, nor its spokesperson. And such a monumental announcement on a sensitive issue that had already seen angry traders going on strike, and the opposition and some UPA allies kicking up a strong protest - needed to be confirmed by top government ministers or bureaucrats.

Secondly, what seemed more puzzling, was the 180 degree turnaround by the UPA government, whose mandarins had been eloquent in ruling out any rollback of the decision even on Friday.

Clearly taken aback, Communist Party of India (CPI) MP Gurudas Dasgupta said: "Let the government announce it. How do I know what is the official position?"

Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Ravi Shankar Prasad lost no time in seeking a formal comment from no less than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or Mukherjee.

But the finance minister refused to play ball. "It is not possible for me to make an announcement. Any government announcement will be made in parliament," Mukherjee said at his south Kolkata residence. Others in the top echelons of the government also remained mum.

Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) Lok Sabha leader Basudeb Acharia demanded a complete withdrawal of the decision. "Mere suspension of decision won't do. They can very well implement it at a later stage. We demand a complete rollback."

Two theories float. One, it was a clever move by the UPA spearhead Congress to kill two birds with one stone. By leaving the announcement to Banerjee, who is herself directly not a part of the union government, the UPA pre-empted any censure for violating parliamentary norms by announcing a major policy decision outside it when it is in session. It also was aimed at placating Banerjee, who has been cut up with the Congress for not being benevolent enough to sanction a special financial package for her state.

Two, Mukherjee did discuss the issue - informally or formally - with Banerjee, but little did he fathom that the Trinamool chief would straightaway go to town with a formal announcement. The political being that she is, Banerjee saw in the announcement a great opportunity to tom tom her party's triumph and ensure the support of four crore small traders, shop employees and their families.

(Anurag Dey can be contacted at





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