By now there is hardly any politician or editor who has not written or spoken about FDI in retail. There is nothing much anyone can really add and I am no economics expert and don’t have a stand on it. I simply believe that retail FDI is neither good nor bad and will not make a significant difference. But it sure might help the real estate business which is in the doldrums for a while. “In my local market, shopkeepers say that even the smallest shops are worth a crore” So writes economist Swaminathan Aiyar in TOI. He must be kidding or out of touch with reality. If you go to a kirana store in the suburbs of Mumbai any shopkeeper will tell you that the ‘tile’ on which you’re standing is worth a crore. So Aiyar calls it a battle between the ‘Aam bania’ and the ‘Aam Aadmi’.
Aiyar adds: “Dominated by banias, small shopkeepers are notorious for cheating customers through adulteration and fiddled weighing scales. They are also notorious for evading sales tax and income tax. That's why the bania is widely despised (although it is wrong to tarnish all with the same brush)”. Really? If this man is an economist then I count myself as a rocket scientist. The biggest crimes against state and aam aadmi haven’t exactly come from small traders but from the biggest corporations. The biggest frauds haven’t come from banias and corner-shops and I need not go into a list of such looters. To the credit of the wiseguys in the Congress they have managed to make almost everyone get into the debate of FDI. Let’s take an example – the one of Big Bazaar (BB). Any supplier dealing with BB would tell you that they have to accept an extraordinary terms of credit, sometimes even up to six months and still remain unpaid. And when BB does badly the first ones to disappear are the poor check-out clerks and bagging attendants. So much for the huge employment that large retailers will generate. Another one, Subhiksha, after grand pronouncements quickly disappeared. These debates in the media were not all spontaneous. Some of them appear to be ‘sponsored’ (as they usually are), especially on TV channels.
When faced with a bad season in parliament on 2G scam, inflation, black money, terrorism, Lokpal bill, it was important for the ruling Congress to come up with bold action. So just around the third day of the winter session of parliament they drop the FDI bomb. This was neither an economic event nor a political event. It’s called “Wag the dog” and a media event. The law of distraction by phenomenon. It’s a strategy by which the public can be distracted, for a good length of time, from important issues, by one which occupies more news time. This strategy works usually when you suddenly have a war which puts everything on the backburner. But in absence of war a media-event will help. This is precisely what Retail FDI was – a media event forced by the ruling party. And what better trick than to instil a good deal of FEAR among citizens about some monster called FDI. It’s always a great strategy. So you had the NDTVs, the CNN-IBNs, TimesNows and all the major and minor newspapers out on the topic.
Sometimes help comes from unknown quarters. The Mullaperiyar dam came into focus with its own fears and politics. Politicians and people of Kerala drummed up the fear of the dam cracking up. They might have had some genuine concerns and in response politicians and people from TN rubbished the claims of the dam being a threat. Any PM would have intervened to quickly reassure both parties of action and fairness. Should MMS have intervened and brought about a truce between the two states? Are you serious? This was a God-send that should be welcomed at a time when fear is the key. And on cue our media goes into another frenzy. FDI and Mullaperiyar, that’s a combination that is tailor-made for the orgy that happens nightly on TV. I cannot but be reminded of these famous lines from Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’: “All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the street…” That much pretty much describes the banal nonsense on night time TV.
Fear helps. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma probably never had so much exclusive time on TV as he did on the FDI issue. Articulate as he is, Sharma did something the Congress would have considered a crime in any other situation – he even cited Narendra Modi being in favour of FDI. And guess what.. NDTV played up that interview over and over again, more often than they normally do, to push the FDI agenda. Clips from that interview where Sharma mentioned Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh being in support of FDI were played out a zillion times. Manmohan Singh, in between, found time to suddenly visit Imphal and inaugurate a new Assembly building. The success of fear-mongering finally culminated in an all-India bandh by over 50 million traders on December 1. Mission accomplished for the Congress!
Is that all? No, not yet. From the time parliament session commenced in November the clown prince, Rahul Gandhi, had only one thing on his mind – change Uttar Pradesh in 10 years. He did not attend parliament even for a single day and was wisely busy with the UP campaign and the youth congress rally. What’s his game? More fear of the Mayawati govt, of more UPites turning into beggars if Congress wasn’t brought back to power in the state and how the Elephant in Lucknow was eating up all the money meant for the aam aadmi. In hind sight Rahul Gandhi’s campaign was the only comic relief in this season of fear. Does RG have any views on FDI in retail? You will know in 10 years! Not enough!
Manmohan Singh mentioned it is “difficult to roll-back FDI”. I had jokingly tweeted asking why and if the kickbacks were taken in advance. Well, here’s the answer: It is reported that Walmart spent over 60 crores in lobbying for retail FDI in India. Where exactly does lobbying money go in India? Ummm, maybe some PR firms like the one Nira Radia operated? Maybe a small percentage but a good chunk has to go elsewhere where real decisions happen. So with parliament being stalled with all this FDI thing and other issues our media comes up with another gem. Both NDTV and CNN-IBN start a campaign, “No work, no pay” for MPs.
“No work, no pay” for MPs if parliament doesn’t work. It must take an extra-ordinary helping of stupidity for the morons in the media to further mislead and deflect the discussion on issues to such silly campaigns. If the Kirana banias are so anti-consumer as Swaminathan Aiyar suggests there is no real reason to believe that foreign businessmen coming into India are going to be exceptionally friendly. They aren’t going to be here for charity either. Such perverted arguments fuel the fears that a failing govt thrives on. Aiyar believes every shopkeeper is worth a crore, so much are our MPs worth? You’ll need a flashlight even on a sunny day to find an MP who isn’t worth crores and yet our stupid media peddles the “no work, no pay” argument. Nothing but mindless populist dialogue that you will find in a cheap Bollywood movie. The govt creates the fear and the media plays the sponsor.
But even organised and sponsored fear has to take a breather. The death of Bollywood legend Dev Anand shocked everyone and news channels covered it with flashbacks and obits. For once, even if it was repetitive, it was nice to hear just good old Dev Anand songs through the day on Sunday, December 4. The nation, including political leaders, came together to pay homage to this great artist. But make no mistake, fear will be back. Corrupt governments throughout history have used fear to survive. In 21 century India they have a sponsor – our news media. Sponsored fear will be back.