November 28, 2012

FDI in Multi-brand Retail

Can the Government Explain its Unseemly, Illegal Hurry?

And Can it Stop Cheating on Rule 235?

1. In the past few days, there has been a debate in Parliament, in the media and in the public sphere about whether the discussion on FDI in multi-brand retail should be conducted under rule 193 (a short-duration discussion with no voting) or rule 184 (with voting) of the Lok Sabha rules. The government says it has finally agreed to a discussion under rule 184 and agreed to a vote. It pretends it has done the opposition, the country and the world a favour.

2. Typical of the conduct of the UPA government, the spokespersons, ministers and parliamentary majority acquirers of the Congress are resorting to untruths and half-baked logic. They are disguising facts. They are insisting that FDI in multi-brand retail amounts to a purely executive decision and does not require parliamentary sanction or approval.

3. This is a bogus reasoning and flies in the face of evidence before us, including as validated and upheld by the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court of India. Every action of the government, of any government, can be scrutinised by Parliament, which is the embodiment of the people of India and their sovereignty. However, in the case of FDI in multi-brand retail, not just is a change in the norms amenable to placid parliamentary scrutiny but also to vigorous parliamentary sanction.

4. Change in FDI regulations can be made only by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in turn changing regulations in the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) of 1999. From time to time, the RBI issues notifications making such changes in or amending the regulations. Section 48 of FEMA mandates that all such changes be laid on the Floor of the House; such changes are called “subordinate legislations” as per the Constitution of India.

5. Rule 234 of the Lok Sabha rules has laid down that every regulation made under any legislation – and this includes “subordinate legislations” – should be placed on the Floor of the House, if so required by the legislation, as soon as it is made. So far every regulation and amendment made by the RBI under FEMA has been placed before Parliament.

6. For example, the RBI amended FDI regulations on August 22, 2008, when it came to introducting FDI in sinlge-brand retail. The regulation was published in the Gazette of India no. 896 [E] on December 30, 2008, and placed on the table on the Lok Sabha on February 18, 2009. This too concerned Section 48 of FEMA.

7. On October 19, 2012, the RBI amended regulations to allow FDI in multi-brand retail. This was published in the Gazette of India no. 795 [E] on October 30, 2012. It should have been put on the table of the House at the beginning of the Winter Session. Why has this not happened?

8. Under rule 235 of the Lok Sabha rules any member can seek an amendment to the regulation and ask for a vote that will bring back FDI in multi-brand retail to Annexure A (sectors in which FDI is prohibited) and not approve its transfer to Annexure A (FDI permitted). This is the right of the House.

9. A vote can be demanded under rule 235 and the Speaker has to fix a time and date for putting the amendment proposed by the MP to vote. Parliament NEEDS TO THINK about the option of rule 235 much more closely.

10. The government, devious to the very end, is seeking to hoodwink Parliament, deprive it of its due right and is attempting to explain away the changes in FDI rules as merely an “enabling framework”, a milk-and-honey expression that means nothing. This is semantic jugglery. Enabling framework or no enabling framework, we are discussing legislation here – and legislation comes under the purview and superintendence of Parliament. No more, no less.

11. This government cannot be trusted with the FDI in multi-brand retail issue. It has a dubious history on this count and seems determined to allow in foreign chains for some ulterior motive. When the RBI did not initially notify the amendment to the relevant regulation in October 2012, a petitioner moved the Supreme Court – writ petition 417/2012 – saying the due process was not being followed in case of multi-brand retail.

12. On October 15, 2012, the Supreme Court heard the petition and got a commitment from the Attorney General that the due process would be followed. It advised the petitioner to wait till the end of the Winter Session of Parliament to ascertain where the new regulations allowing FDI in multi-brand retail had been placed in both Houses of Parliament.

13. It has been a week since Parliament convened. We are still waiting for the government to come good on its promise and indeed its Constitutional obligation.

14. The Trinamool Congress and its leader, Ms Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, have been the original and unstinting crusaders in the matter of FDI in multi-brand retail. Other parties have periodically jumped on and off the issue. Some of them are seeking deals with the government, others are seeking publicity. Only the Trinamool Congress has a consistent and principled opposition to FDI in multi-brand retail at this stage of India’s development.

Jai Hind, Jai Bangla, Vande Mataram, Long Live Ma Maati Manush

November 06, 2012

Dateline UN | October 26, 2012

Click to end digital divide.

Day Ten: They say I’ve been lucky. My 10 days at the United Nations yielded five statements to various Committees of the General Assembly, one address to the full General Assembly and a stint at the Security Council. Even though MPs from India visit the UN Headquarters every year, few are privileged with such a rich experience. Maybe I was fortunate there were only two of us for most of the period I was at the UN.

One of my final engagements was making a statement before the Third Committee of the General Assembly — the Social, Cultural and Humanitarian Committee.

I was speaking on the subject of media and urged digital media, including social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook, be treated as equivalent to traditional media — or the fourth estate as we know it — in the privileges and legal protection accorded.

“It is important,” I said, “not to treat the digital media, which in many countries caters to a different segment of society, differently from the traditional media.” To treat it differently “would be divisive”. I felt this intervention was relevant to the debates we have had domestically, in India and in West Bengal, in the recent past.

There was piquancy to my concluding bit of work at the UN. I helped prepare a statement on human rights that I was meant to deliver on India’s behalf. As it happened, the schedule changed and the statement will now be read out by another MP in the following week. A text drafted in consultation with a Trinamool Congress MP will be read out by either a Congress or BJP or CPM MP! When you’re part of Team India, party affiliations don’t matter.

I left New York on one of the last flights before Hurricane Sandy. As we drove to the airport, I was contemplative. I’d visited the city many times but this trip had been different. The UN was such a transformational experience; it opened so many windows in my mind. After checking in at JFK airport, I sent chief minister Mamata Banerjee — or Mamata Di as I’ve always called her — a text message: “Dear Mamata i… I’ve been on many stages and in many studios. Thank you for giving me the biggest stage of my life.” The reply was instant: “Okay. Phire esho (Come back).”

Postscript: As an MP, I’ve interacted with civil servants very often and very closely. The UN visit was my first extended interface with our foreign service.

Just before I flew out, I was chatting with senior diplomats at India’s Permanent Mission and asked them if politics back home affected them.

They spoke of the continuity of Indian foreign policy and the general pattern of a government keeping to international commitments given by its predecessor. “Many secretaries in New Delhi are changed when a new government takes charge,” one of the officials told me, “but not one foreign secretary has been changed. The IFS has that privilege.” It retains a certain aura, sequestered as it is from domestic politics.

The official recounted the one time a foreign secretary left his job prematurely. It was in the 1980s when something the then foreign secretary had said was contradicted by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. “Almost immediately,” the official told me, “the foreign secretary resigned. He was A.P. Venkateswaran. I had worked with him, one of our finest diplomats since Independence.”

The conversation ended there. Hours later, I was on the Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to New Delhi, the second leg of my journey home. The passenger next to me was a middle-aged lady, soft-spoken and polite, and we got talking. I gathered she had once lived in India. “So did you go to school in Delhi?” I asked.

“For a while, yes,” she said, “I went to school in many cities. My father was in the foreign service.”

“Really? What’s his name?”

“A.P. Venkateswaran.”

Thirty-five thousand feet above the earth, you could have knocked me down with a feather.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Tuesday, November 06, 2012]

November 03, 2012

Dateline UN | October 25, 2012

Catching up with AB!

Day Nine: The day began with a statement to the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly — the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee — on the subject of child rights. The focus of my speech was to urge that nurturing the demographic dividend — both India’s and the world’s — be seen not merely as a social obligation but also an economic need.

“I come from India,” I began, “where one in every five of the world’s children lives. I come from India, where 400 million children and young people below the age of 18 live; this is larger than the population of America, Argentina and Australia put together. I come from India, which manufactures 40 per cent of vaccines used in universal immunisation programmes across the world, protecting small babies and little children from disease and death. I come from India, where investing in the future of our country’s and our world’s youngest citizens is recognised as not just an economic necessity but a moral imperative.”

The evening had a different taste to it, literally. I had my second great Indian dinner of the week, this time at the residence of Ambassador Hardeep Puri, India’s permanent representative to the UN. Puri is among India’s best-known diplomats, on extension to see through India’s two-year term at the Security Council. He is one half of the consummate New York power couple. His wife, Lakshmi, was a member of the Indian Foreign Service but left for a job at UN Women. She is today among the most senior Indian employees of the UN.

Dinner at their place was a magic mix of great food and great company. It began with mini idlis and fish flavoured with southern spices, among the most unusual starters I’ve had. Over the evening, the food and especially the kebabs got even better. There is a story to be written on the quality of and spin given to Indian food in New York, but that’s for another day.

At the Puri residence, I met an old, old friend. I had known Ajay Banga 20 years ago in Calcutta, when he was at Nestle. He was in fact one of those I consulted before setting up my company. Ajay later moved to Citibank and is now president and CEO of Mastercard Worldwide. He is also chairman of the United States-India Business Council (USIBC), widely regarded as the most important bilateral business forum. An IIM Ahmedabad alumnus, he is one of a growing cohort of Indian corporate achievers in the US.

Ajay and I, and the others at the party, chatted about the two big Indian diaspora stories of the moment: the sentencing of Rajat Gupta for insider trading and the resignation of Vikram Pandit as chief executive of Citibank. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal all that my conversationalists told me; cocktail party chatter and newspaper copy must be strictly sequestered! Nevertheless it did strike me that with the departure of Pandit and the diminished legacy of Gupta, Ajay Banga is perhaps the leading Indian face in corporate America at this juncture.

We discussed his role at USIBC and the future of West Bengal. There was interest and curiosity among the guests about Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamul Congress government.

We had a tentative chat about Ajay heading a USIBC delegation to West Bengal in 2013. US trading ships were visiting Calcutta as far back as the early 19th century, famously bringing a cargo of American ice, for instance. In 1794, the US sent a permanent envoy and commercial agent to Calcutta and set up what has become among the State Department’s longest-surviving diplomatic stations. It’s time to give the US-Bengal relationship a new momentum. Maybe Ajay Banga and USIBC will take us to the next frontier.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Saturday, November 03, 2012]