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Strikes in India against retail reforms

Publication Date : 21-09-2012


Shops and businesses in many parts of India shut as opposition parties, allies of the Congress party and traders took to the streets to demand that the government rescind its decision to allow the entry of foreign supermarket chains like Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour.

"Roll back, roll back," chanted protesters from the Samajwadi party in Delhi yesterday. Trains were blocked in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Rivals, from the Left parties to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and Congress allies alike, such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and Samajwadi party, also held protests.

But the government showed it was not backing off by formally opening its retail sector to foreign supermarkets yesterday.

"We have enough friends and we will continue working for the greater good of the economy... In a democracy you have the right to protest but it is ironic that the way you are protesting is bad for the economy," Finance Minister P. Chidambaram told reporters.

The Confederation of Indian Industries estimated that around US$2.25 billion was lost because of yesterday's protests.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is struggling to keep his coalition together after his big bang reforms drive reduced his government to a minority after Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee announced her party's decision to quit the alliance on Tuesday. Six ministers of the Trinamool are expected to hand in their resignations today.

In another sign of deteriorating ties, Banerjee yesterday accused the federal government of tapping her phones. Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde denied the charge.

Singh's reforms, which also included a diesel hike and a cap on the number of subsidised gas cylinders for a household, are aimed at reducing the government's fiscal deficit and attracting foreign investment.

But opposition and ally parties argue that an influx of foreign supermarkets would force thousands of mom-and-pop shops to shut down.

The senior leadership of the Congress is sticking to its reforms agenda.

"We are convinced that these reforms are not for a few rich people but it is what will support us in outreach for a vast number of Indian citizens, many of whom require food and education support. It is for funding of these programmes," said Law and Justice Minister Salman Khurshid.

The Congress continued to hold talks with the Samajwadi party, whose chief Mulayam Singh Yadav joined protests by the Left parties in Delhi against retail reforms. Yadav does not want to pull the government down, said party leaders.

"We are not withdrawing support to the Congress party... the option of joining the government is not the main issue. We will see about that later," Samajwadi spokesman Rajendra Chaudhary told The Straits Times. "But right now our demand is that the retail reforms have to be taken back."

Yadav is known to be politically ambitious and have his eye on the prime minister's post. Thus he has been looking at heading a political alternative to the two main national parties.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the other party the Congress is banking on, stayed away from the protests, much to the relief of Congress.

Mayawati, who heads the BSP, is known to be not in favour of early polls, having just suffered an electoral loss in Uttar Pradesh.

Analysts said Congress allies would now play hardball but did not see any danger of the government falling.

"The Samajwadi party needs political mileage and Mulayam Singh Yadav will bargain very hard," said Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar.

"But the government can continue as a minority, after all Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ran a minority government for two years in the '70s."


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