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Verdict lends smile to Naik
- Supreme Court’s interim order gives petroleum ministry breathing space

New Delhi, Aug. 28: The petroleum ministry and Ram Naik are pleased that the Supreme Court’s interim order has nixed Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s fiat cancelling the pump allotments.

Many within the BJP see the judgment as a victory in a “battle” between premier Vajpayee and others in the party leadership, including deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, as it was this section of the party leadership that had all along been pressuring Naik to bend a bit and reward party loyalists by giving them or their relatives licences to establish petrol pumps and gas agencies.

Besides the fact that the order hit morale in the BJP’s rank and file badly, the ministry knew the order’s implementation would have meant more headaches as it threatened to open up a forest of issues, including the modalities for the conduct of auctions for the licences that were being cancelled and whether or not to protect the quotas for ex-servicemen and sportsmen.

In fact, Naik could barely suppress his smile as he explained the Supreme Court’s decision to reporters. “It’s not a setback—it really can’t be read as a victory for anyone. The apex court’s judgement is an interim one and should be seen as such,” he said.

In a conversation with The Telegraph a week back, Naik himself had taken pains to point out the problems he would have in sorting out the tangle created by the prime ministerial fiat cancelling all petroleum pumps allocations made since June 2000, after allegations that the BJP government had favoured its party functionaries and their kith and kin with petrol pump and cooking gas sales agencies of state run oil companies.

Although Naik today officially said the government was still mulling over an Ordinance which could overule the apex court’s judgement, top petroleum ministry sources said that the Ordinance idea had long been jettisoned after the law ministry advised that it was flawed.

They added that a political decision had been taken by the Prime Minister himself that the BJP government should not be seen to be at loggerheads with the Supreme Court in punishing its own party members.

Naik said the court order had three components which the government has to consider—first, that it alone will decide on the issue; second, allottees whose petrol pumps and cooking gas agencies have started functioning should be allowed to run them while maintaining a separate account for this and, third, there should be no fresh award of licences for those licensees who have not yet started operations.

Naik and his ministry have been working hard to prove that there was nothing wrong in the pump-for-partymen scam.

In the process, they fished out lists of Congressmen and their relatives who had been similarly rewarded during the 1980s and 1990s and pointed out that any omnibus order cancelling all suspect allotments would simply throw the entire petroleum distribution set up into disarray as more than 27,500 dealers in all—24,000 given out during the period when Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao were prime ministers and 3,500 during the BJP regime—would have been affected.

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