ON 20 NOVEMBER, chief whips of various parties gathered to meet the new parliamentary affairs minister in the run-up to the Winter Session of Parliament. The Trinamool Congress congratulated Kamal Nath on his new portfolio but added, tongue in cheek, it sympathised with him for having been given the job by a “minority government”. Also discussed was the prospect of support for the move to allow FDI in multi-brand retail. While Nath listened politely but grimly, and tried to persuade parties of the Opposition and within the UPA coalition, it was clear the Congress was isolated on this one.
The portents were telling. The Trinamool Congress had announced its determination to move a no-confidence motion “even if only Trinamool MPs stand up for the motion in Parliament”. To introduce such a motion, the party needed the backing of 50 MPs in a Lok Sabha of 543 members. As it happens, the Trinamool Congress had only 19 MPs. Failure was guaranteed.
Yet, the Trinamool leadership had factored that in. When a regional party moves a no-confidence motion it is not trying to bring down the government or influence national politics, but attempting to send a message to its constituency in its home state. By pleading with the CPM-led Left bloc to back her no-confidence motion, even agreeing to withdraw her motion and second a similar Left motion and telling CPI MP Gurudas Dasgupta she was willing to drive down to the Alimuddin Street headquarters of the CPM in Kolkata, Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool chief, was targeting not the UPA government, but the Communists.
Mamata has calculated the Congress-led government in New Delhi is unpopular beyond repair. If the Left backed her no-confidence motion, it would play second fiddle to her. If the Left stayed neutral, she could accuse it of siding with the Congress. Either way, she would benefit in the panchayat elections that are expected this winter and will be the first popular test of her chief ministry in West Bengal.
Both the CPM and the BJP are wary of a no-confidence motion and realise it will probably lead to a mobilisation of forces within the UPA. Opposition parties that are worried about contradictions in the non-Congress space — the CPM vis-à-vis the Trinamool Congress; or several parties vis-à-vis the BJP — would not want to be accused of opportunism and risk a repeat of the July 2008 vote of confidence episode, which ended in a fiasco for the UPA’s challengers.
Also, presuming the government survives this one, a second no-confidence cannot be introduced for six months as per the rules. In the assessment of several parties, the UPA may be truly vulnerable in the Budget Session — late February to late April 2013 — and as such, there is no point wasting an opportunity. Mamata herself has told party MPs she expects the government to be in serious trouble by April-May, and so is probably only posturing.
The real danger to the Congress could come in the form of a motion that debates the FDI in multi-brand retail policy and results in voting. Whether such a motion (voting or non-voting) is permitted depends on the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. While the policy decision on FDI in retail is purely in the executive’s domain, there is a facilitative change of rules required in the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA). It is felt this change of rules comes under the rubric of “delegated legislation” and can be undertaken by the executive without reference to the legislature, but this is a grey area.
Given this, if a general statement on the FDI in retail policy or its facilitative law is put to vote, and if the government loses, it would be crippling for the Congress. Should the BJP and the CPM, the Trinamool Congress and the DMK, the BSP and the SP all oppose the idea of FDI in retail in a Lok Sabha vote — as does seem to be the stated position — the government would forfeit credibility. It would indicate the UPA is out of political capital and cannot undertake any meaningful policy change. In sum, the Manmohan Singh government would be rendered a lame duck, even without losing the confidence of the House in the legal sense of the term. Such a scenario would allow various and mutually contradictory non-Congress parties to claim they have not joined hands in an act of expediency or sought to destabilise the government; they have only responded on a matter of principle. It would also make a Lok Sabha election in the summer of 2013 a tantalising prospect.