Delhi At the top of my agenda in Delhi as I met with ACORN India Delhi director and India FDI Watch director Dharmendra Kumar was understanding better the misjudgment of Prime Minister Singh and his Congress Party led government when they tried to mandate a change in foreign direct investment in November 2011 in multi-brand retail, which led to a historic faceoff with the Indian Parliament. Certainly Singh knew the policy was contentious, had been for years, but thought he could appease his commercial allies and their neoliberal lobbyist governments around the world in the USA, UK, France, Germany, and elsewhere that represented Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour, Metro, and other multi-brand outlets.
The government had the constitutional power to open the markets, but Singh’s actions in the absence of any consensus converted the Indian Parliament to what might be called an elected protest movement. Having no power to stop the change the various parties from the right, BJP, to the left, CPM, along with growing regional formations, simply refused to allow there to be business as usual, and stopped any parliamentary business period. As Dharmendra retold the story of the 21-day parliamentarian “work stoppage,” it was easy to see Singh caught by protestors inside the building who were elected to be there and protestors outside the building in huge numbers who were there from every impacted sector fighting for their livelihoods.
The situation now stands where it did 7 months ago. To break the stalemate the government “suspended” the change, promising to go through a process to build consensus, some of which they have now tried, but little of which they have achieved. Dharmendra is concerned that the government may use the two-month monsoon break in June and July to left the suspension and reintroduce the change taking advantage of the parliamentary recess during that period.
The outside pressure has also continued on several fronts. The slackening of the Indian GNP growth rate to only a little over 5% rather than the 9% of recent years has brought yelps from business interests throughout the country and therefore political pressure on the government to do something or just about anything. In that light the government has announced huge infrastructure investments, but other voices are calling for the FDI change in retail since outside investment has also slackened. Recently US Secretary of State and former Walmart board member, Hillary Clinton, was in both Kolkata and Delhi, where published reports in the Times of India and many other papers believe that she lobbied the Prime Minister directly in her meetings as well as the new West Bengal power bloc for the FDI change.
Nonetheless it is not so simple to force this through. India FDI Watch has initiated a high level and grassroots petition demanding tighter regulations around corruption given the Walmart bribery scandal in Mexico. We and others have tried to also argue in the consultations for a more limited allowance of foreign investment at between 25% and 49% rather than the government 51% mandate.
Finally it is worth always keeping in mind that the real power and final arbiter, even if the government makes this change, rest with the individual state governments where we have already and most significantly won the final decision on retail establishments. Several states including the largest, Uttar Pradesh, have banned multi-brand retail as have Kerala and others. Any national change would not open the doors wide, but simply move the fight to stop this unregulated attack on 40 million retail jobs to the local level, where our hands are not only not tied, but balled more tightly in fists that cannot be ignored.