Saturday, 10 December 2011

Does RSS, BJP opposition to foreign investment in retail have to do with their trader base ?

From: The Telegraph,

Packaged in Nagpur, resold in BJP store


New Delhi, Nov. 30: Nagpur is running the backend operations of the BJP as far as retail is concerned, giving new shelf life to faces that were in cold storage during the Atal-Advani era.

One such figure was on display today when the BJP fielded Murli Manohar Joshi to address the media this afternoon. Joshi is not just the prime mover behind the party’s adjournment motion against FDI in multi-brand retail but he is also its most consistent “swadeshi” face that he often masked when the NDA was in power.

Today, Joshi drew his importance from the fact that had he not vetted the BJP’s 2009 manifesto, an “oversight” that “crept” into the NDA’s governance agenda before the 2004 elections might have haunted it now.

The physics professor — who drafted the BJP’s economic resolutions in the years before Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani accepted the reality of reforms — quoted from the 2009 manifesto to “prove” that the party was against retail FDI. He also referred to the NDA’s vision document of 2004 that waxed eloquent about “swadeshi”.

Asked about another 2004 document — the NDA’s development and governance agenda — Joshi feigned ignorance. It stated that if re-elected, the BJP and its allies intended to allow FDI in retail.

If Joshi’s advance to the forefront reflected the reach of the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, the statement of another BJP leader, so far considered pro-reform, suggested how retail has become a holy cow.

“I am for foreign investments even in touch-me-not areas like defence and media. But I will draw the line at retail because it is an idea whose time has not come,” the articulate leader said, playing on Victor Hugo’s line that Manmohan Singh had given wide currency to while pushing reforms.

The BJP leader cited the reasons: domestic manufacturing might be adversely impacted; self-employment will suffer; a consolidated market might restrict consumers’ choices; and “too much” was being made of the argument that only foreign retailers can develop cold chains.

However, this leader, like the others taking up cudgels against retail FDI, couldn’t back the objections with empirical evidence. After plodding for days, the only supporting study a BJP source dug out was titled “The cause and consequences of WalMart’s growth” by Emek Basker, an economics professor of Missouri University.

The RSS’s clout was in evidence elsewhere, too. BJP president Nitin Gadkari — he was bowled over by Pranab Mukherjee’s luncheon outreach to him before the winter session and felt that it was time to pursue reform-related legislation in a “spirit of consensus” — today extended the party’s “whole-hearted support” to a national bandh retail traders and trade unions have called on Thursday.

“There was pressure from Nagpur,” a source said. The Sangh directed its progenies like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh to participate in the December 1 bandh and asked the BJP to support it “from the sidelines” if it didn’t wish to overtly associate itself with it.

Even then, the BMS chief Girish Awasthi suspected the BJP’s motives. “Their leaders are dodgy on reforms,” he said. “Watch, they’ll vote for the pension bill. This retail business, they are against it because they are on the side of the big domestic retail chains. Our heart bleeds for the kiosk vendors and the small shopkeepers.”

Deepak Pradeep Sharma, the SJM convener, boasted that if Joshi junked the retail bit from the 2009 manifesto, it was “because of our signature campaign”.

Not that the swadeshi lobby had dropped its posturing when Vajpayee was in power. A source said that when Vajpayee — backed by Jaswant Singh and Brajesh Mishra —flagged retail FDI at a cabinet meeting, the proposal was shouted down.

But the dispensation then tried to work around the obstacles. “Vajpayee suspended the decision but those with an appetite for reforms managed to place it in the 2004 manifesto,” the sources said.

The Sangh’s eagerness to stick by the trading community reflects its inability to reach out to new constituencies. Even at the Anna Hazare campaign in Delhi, many of the people who turned up at the fast venue were traders – a turnout that was immediately sought to be tied to the Sangh.

The BJP leadership also appears to be only too willing to ride piggyback on this support base. With the race to be the prime ministerial candidate still wide open, no one seems to be in a mood to take a stand that may not go down well with the Sangh, without whose support their hopes for the top job will be dashed.

“We cannot afford to lose the backing of the middle-level businessmen and the small traders, they are our backbone. Industry is not our core constituency,” a BJP leader said.

Six months ago, when the BJP’s economics cell had invited industry representatives to speak on retail FDI, the battlelines were visible. The younger members, especially a vocal and telegenic spokesperson, attacked the speakers when they spoke in favour of it.

The older ones associated closely with the Vajpayee dispensation had to quell tempers. “Later we told the hot-heads ‘what kind of a signal do you want to send about a party that positions itself as the Congress’s only national alternative? That the BJP is a dinosaur?’” a participant recalled.

The answer to that question will have to wait until the BJP figures out who runs its operations, both backend and frontend.

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