India foreign supermarket plan on hold: gov’t ally

By Henry Foy, Reuters

MUMBAI–India’s government will put a plan to open up its retail industry to foreign supermarkets on hold until it reaches consensus on the issue within the coalition, the leader of the ruling Congress party’s biggest ally said on Saturday. A decision to allow global giants such as Wal-Mart into India’s US$450 billion retail market, the first major economic reform since Singh’s graft-riddled term began in 2009, has been met with fierce opposition from parties who say it will destroy the livelihood of millions of small traders. Mamata Banerjee, who is against the policy and whose Trinamool Congress brings 19 votes to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ruling Congress party-led coalition, said that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had told her that the policy would be put on hold. Banerjee has previously pledged not to use the issue to bring down the government, and refrained from saying that consensus was impossible. In India’s multi-party democracy, coalition allies often use the importance of their votes in New Delhi to exact support for the regions or states they represent. “(Mukherjee) has told me that the center has decided to suspend implementation of the decision to allow FDI in retail,” Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, told reporters in Kolkata in a press conference broadcast on local television. “He has told me that the decision will not be implemented unless there is consensus on the issue,” said Banerjee, who has announced her opposition to the policy. A Congress spokesperson was not reachable for comment.

With a thin parliamentary majority, the government is dependent on allies but does not face any immediate threat of losing power. Trinamool’s votes would be required to bring the policy into law. ‘Wal-Mart Does Not Serve Us’ Any retreat on the policy is seen as damaging India’s image with foreign investors as Asia’s third-largest economy shows signs of slowing, and would add to a basket of key economic reforms that have been shelved by Singh’s government. A senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the government was fooling the country about the benefits of foreign supermarkets. “Wal-Mart may be fine for (the West) but Wal-Mart does not serve us,” L.K. Advani, a former president of the BJP and leader of the opposition from 2004 to 2009, told a summit in New Delhi. “We should not be envious of Wal-Mart,” Advani said.

Allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) into the retail industry is one of a basket of reforms, seen as key to sustaining India’s continued growth, that have been postponed over the past 18 months as the government reeled from scandal to scandal. The controversy has drawn on some deep-seated nationalism in the right-wing BJP, which appeared to support the policy in 2004 but has now jumped to the support of millions of small shopkeepers that they see as a key vote base. The BJP has led protests in parliament that have paralyzed both chambers every day since the 21-day winter session opened last week. Its opposition to the policy stands in stark contrast to its free-market stance and is the latest move by an increasingly populist opposition that has sought to portray the ruling Congress party as out of touch with common Indians as elections loom in 2014. “To give an impression that FDI in retail will solve all problems like inflation, price rise, unemployment … whosoever is saying this is fooling people that FDI will get millions of jobs. It cannot happen,” Advani said.