It has taken me precisely 30 years to come out of the closet. I do so fully conscious of the opprobrium that awaits me. But if not now, when?
I am tired of living a life in the shadows. So here it is, my public confession. I love Indian parliamentary debates and cannot get enough of them. There, I said it. I already feel relieved, clean and truthful. Now that I have admitted, I really wonder why I did not do so much earlier. I may not have been born that way but I have certainly acquired it with full conviction.
Watching the Indian Members of Parliament (MPs) debate in the two houses known as the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha whether to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) into India’s multi-brand retail sector has been inevitably entertaining and marginally educational.
Although there are other global giants in multi-brand retailing, the one name that encapsulates this entire space of commerce it is Wal-Mart. It was no surprise that it figured frequently during the debate on which the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sought a parliamentary vote and won in both the houses.
Of course, the victory ought to have come at a political price through various behind-the-scenes deals whose details may never fully become public. The opposition parties, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot help but marvel at the ruling Congress Party’s deftness of timing the vote as every politician is entering the election state of mind for the 2014 parliamentary elections. No enough members want to vote out the government right now.
The government has positioned the issue as one that will directly benefit India’s hundreds of millions of farmers by eliminating brokers and middlemen (bicholiye is the Hindi word heard during the debates) by helping them sell their produce straight to big box stores such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Tesco among others at much better prices. Also, that such investments would create thousands of jobs for the country’s young demographic. In short, as far as the government is concerned it is a win-win proposition.
For the opposition parties, most of whom had at one point or another clearly supported FDI in multi-brand retail, the basic contention is that giant retailers will push out and eventually finish tens of millions of mom-and-pop neighborhood stores throughout the country. As part of its messaging for the Gujarat state elections, for instance, the BJP is even comparing FDI in multi-brand retail to inviting a modern day avatar of the East India Company that helped usher in the British colonial rule in India.
It was amusing to see some of the government functionaries using a rather weird argument. I heard ruling members actually argue that Wal-Mart had barely managed to penetrate 5 percent of the Chinese market. If they want to come to India and not particularly succeed why should we stand in their way appeared to be the rationale.
For me, more than anything else such debates afford a precious opportunity to see and hear Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar deal with often unruly members with singsong equanimity. “Baith jaiye, baith jaiye. Unhe bol ne dijiye (Sit down, sit down. Let them speak)” is one of her constant refrains. It is rare that she looks perturbed at the shenanigans. She mostly wears an expression of amused tolerance of petulant children. I have always thought that parliamentary proceedings lend themselves so well to a Broadway musical. I wrote about it in December last year here.
Once again the task of breaking down the debate to graspable little nuggets for the ordinary Indian was left to Lalu Prasad Yadav, president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal party. He asked BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani why he used Twitter (he called it tutor but that is minor) if he was so opposed to foreign direct investment. It was an unrelated but effective counter in a parliamentary debate. What matters in parliamentary debates is not necessarily substance but effectiveness.
Now that India has cleared the way for FDI in multi-brand retail, the Singh government can rightfully challenge the apprehensions of a serious slowdown in its economic reform process as voiced by global investors. On balance though FDI in retail is not a politically sexy issue that can make or mar a party’s electoral prospects. It is also no guarantee that big retailers will rush into India right away.