But the big story of the week was the long goodbye to FDI in retail. In Parliament, there was entertaining talk of aloos and laukis and the remarkable prophecy that we shall become a nation of salesboys and salesgirls. Shall we never grow up and become shopmen and shopwomen? It was reminiscent of colonials who insisted on calling grown Indian men ‘boys’.
The Indian coverage of Parliament has been as lively as that of a cricket match. Even now, Web links to the debates are being swapped in social media. The sheer volume is enough to put you off the issue for ever, and besides, the positions on the question are too polarised to be taken seriously. Depending on who is on the TV screen — and who is in the anchor’s seat — FDI in retail will either beggar all farmers, small traders and shopkeepers, or be revealed to be the magic potion which will rouse India out of the slough of despond that UPA II’s tenure has become. These outcomes are spoken of loudly and breathlessly, as if they will happen instantly, maybe even by Monday morning.
Distance is believed to confer perspective, so I turned to the foreign channels. With Walmart and Tesco among the biggest beneficiaries of the liberalisation of single brand retail, one would have expected US and UK media to be keenly interested in the matter. However, CNN’s international service seems to have followed the issue indifferently. The only prominent story dated from mid-November, when Manmohan Singh had promised a second wave of reforms.
The BBC has carried a number of comprehensive stories, but what is that but an impersonal tally of pros and cons? Only one story appeared to be opinionated, headlined, ‘Why good economics makes for bad politics’. It concerned the exit of Mamata Banerjee from the UPA. Soutik Biswas, who reported it, probably did not contribute the headline since it was clearly good politics. With Banerjee in the baggage, the UPA would never have been able to cut deals with the SP and the BSP, as it has done this week. She would have kept them all busy fighting imaginary fires on other fronts.
However, Al Jazeera has tracked the story closely and in a nuanced manner in its Inside Story programme. The latest episode, anchored by Kamahl Santamaria, asked if “letting megastores into the country’s marketplace will help balance economic reforms with poverty alleviation.” His guests talked sense. A KPMG analyst made a necessary distinction between unorganised and organised retail. Dharmendra Kumar of India Foreign Direct Investment Watch brought in an interesting clarification — the ‘unorganised’ sector is actually self-organising, he insisted. And Arvind Panagariya of Columbia University pointed out that FDI is not a tsunami that can change the face of India next week, for good or bad. A very necessary brake on a debate that has been going nowhere for months and is out of breath.