Do Kamal Nath’s deal-making skills as parliamentary affairs minister make him the UPA’s natural trouble-shooter in a post-Pranab era, wonders Ashok Malik
IF IT all goes to plan, the Lok Sabha will discuss the FDI in multi-brand retail proposal on 4 December, and vote on it, under Rule 184, at noon the next day. As UPA parliamentary managers explain it, the DMK is expected to vote with the government, and the BSP and Samajwadi Party (SP) are predicted to walk out and/or not vote. The SP will continue to insist it is opposed to FDI in multi-brand retail and will not permit it entry into Uttar Pradesh, where the party runs the government.
Once that little drama is got over with on 5 December — and if, as is likely, the government wins the vote comfortably — Parliament will be back in business for a good two weeks. A broad agreement has been reached between the Congress and the BJP on five key economic Bills, including the insurance, pension and banking Bills. On insurance, the government had proposed lifting the FDI cap from 26 to 49 percent. The BJP was not agreeable. A compromise has been reached and it is likely that irrespective of the FDI inflow, the effective voting strength of the foreign direct investor will be limited to 26 percent.
If this scenario actually plays itself out, it would be quite dramatic. Quite suddenly, the tone and tenor of Parliament would have changed. Fears of a wasted Winter Session — on the lines of the wasted Monsoon Session earlier this year — would recede. Floor negotiation between the government and the Opposition would, in the best traditions of Parliament, be down to bargaining, doing political deals and giving the other side room to walk away with its honour intact.
Not surprisingly, this prospect has Kamal Nath smiling. The new parliamentary affairs minister, given the job by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the eve of what was expected to be a contentious session — and when he dithered, prodded to accept by Sonia Gandhi — has delivered. By the third week of December, he could well have given the UPA government its most successful parliamentary session in a long, long time, with a slew of economic Bills passed, allowing some breathing space to the finance ministry — ironically headed by one of Nath’s oldest rivals in the Cabinet.
As it happens, Nath’s ability to reach out to the BJP as well as a series of smaller parties has shown up some of his predecessors in the parliamentary affairs ministry. It has also made apparent the critical gaps of political maturity and acumen in the manner in which the UPA government has hitherto operated.
When Parliament convened on 22 November, the BJP and the CPM immediately demanded a vote on the FDI in multi-brand retail issue. The government didn’t want a vote as it was unsure of the outcome. There was a sense that the BSP was keener on being allowed to push for legislation upholding reservations in promotions of Dalit government servants. The SP wanted to bark but not bite, and not oppose the government in a vote. The DMK had indicated it would shout and scream, but not vote against the government. One by one, they had to be drawn out from covert positions.
At the all-party meeting on 26 November, it was obvious most parties wanted the House to function — and were concerned about the negative publicity if Parliament continued to be disrupted. They also wanted a discussion on FDI in multi-brand retail. “Crucially,” said a minister, “it became apparent that not many parties were particularly concerned with Rule 184 or Rule 193, and on voting or not voting.”
Sensing the government was comfortable, Nath went to the BJP leadership — Sushma Swaraj, leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and Arun Jaitley, her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha — with an offer: we will agree to a vote on FDI in multi-brand retail, as you desire, if you reciprocate and support us on economic Bills. The groundwork on building commonalities on the Bills had already been done. The compromise formula on FDI in insurance was arrived at and the peace pipe smoked. Both sides came away with something to crow about. “More important,” said a senior politician, “the two national parties regained control of the House from the smaller parties.”
CLEVER AND astute politics eschews a maximalist, take-no-prisoners approach. “Unfortunately,” said a Congress functionary, “this Rajya Sabha mindset of the government has cost us a lot in the past two or three years.” If Nath was allowed to optimise his prodigious networking capacities, it was a grudging recognition that the UPA needed to turn to its 24/7 politicians, rather than its technocratic politicians.
Nath went to the BJP with an offer: we will agree to a vote on FDI in retail, as you desire, if you reciprocate and back us on economic Bills
It is worth noting that despite having been a member of the Lok Sabha since 1980, Nath has only just been nominated to the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA). It is telling that Kapil Sibal, who came into the Lower House almost a quarter-century after Nath, beat him to the CCPA.
Born into a Punjabi family that had settled in Calcutta but had business interests in Chhindwara (Madhya Pradesh) — eventually to become his Lok Sabha constituency — Nath entered politics as part of the Sanjay Gandhi brigade. He has had his share of controversies — as a member of the Youth Congress in the 1970s and the Emergency period; for the unproven allegations against him in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence; in regard to dodgy environmental clearances given in the 1990s to a hotel project the Nath family had a stake in.
Nevertheless, his circle of friends in the bureaucracy and the political class is matched by few. Some are already seeing him fill the bridge-builder role that Pranab Mukherjee vacated when he became president. In the past few days, Nath put those troubleshooting skills to work. He picked up the phone and spoke to Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, describing the latter as “an old friend from the 1980s”. He has never been out of touch with Naveen Patnaik, the BJD chief who was a classmate of Nath and Sanjay Gandhi at Doon School.
To top it all, at a meeting in the Lok Sabha Speaker’s chamber, BJP veteran LK Advani congratulated the UPA for finally giving itself a capable parliamentary affairs minister.
A high-profile commerce and industry minister in the first UPA government, Nath lost that charge because of differences with Manmohan on import tariffs for industrial products as well as his hard stance on agricultural commitments under the WTO regime. It is believed Nath preferred a calibrated, politically-saleable line, while Manmohan wanted to go further.
When the UPA was re-elected in 2009, Nath was given the road transport and highways ministry, and then urban development. It was felt he had been sidelined. It took FDI in multi-brand retail, a cause he had promoted in his earlier avatar as commerce minister, to bring him back to the thick of things.
Ashok Malik is a Contributing Editor with Tehelka.