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Jaswant pushed off reform vehicles

New Delhi, Sept. 25: In an unprecedented move, the BJP council of ministers has taken its finance minister, Jaswant Singh, off some five core groups of ministers, including two considered crucial to the pace of reforms — the group of ministers on labour reforms and group of ministers on fertiliser pricing and policy.

Interestingly, notifications announcing this, which have the approval of the Prime Minister, were sent to the ministers concerned after Singh, known for his pro-reform views, left for a seven-day tour to the US.

The other GoMs from which Singh has been removed include a group on Mass Rapid Transport Systems chaired by deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani, and another on scientific matters headed by HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi.

Both Joshi and Advani are believed to be in favour of toning down the pace of reforms to suit political needs. The GoMs on fertiliser policy and labour reforms are incidentally headed by Plan panel deputy chairman K. C. Pant, a man considered pro-reform but politically sagacious enough to realise where to draw the line in order to conform to the needs of realpolitik.

Singh is known to be strongly in favour of diluting labour laws to make it easier to bring in a hire-and-fire policy that would allow companies to retrench, lay off and shut down units without long-drawn out procedures.

Till now, this has been the ruling view in the GoM and Singh’s support would have helped clear the draft labour policy which enunciated just this, far more quickly.

However, with elections to some 10 state assemblies drawing near where policy decisions taken now could make or mar BJP’s chances at the hustings and the Sangh Parivar’s frontal organisations mounting a vociferous attack against the proposed labour reforms, the BJP government is developing cold feet on the issue.

The Sangh Parivar organisations — Bharatiya Mazdoor Sabha, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and Swadeshi Jagran Manch — have launched a movement against economic reforms, especially labour reforms, disinvestment and relaxation of FDI norms, today itself.

Minus Singh, and given the changed composition of the GoM, it is expected to become the vehicle for a milder dose of labour reforms, something which is politically more convenient to the BJP.

The GoM, chaired by Pant, earlier had Yashwant Sinha, Manohar Joshi, Murasoli Maran and Sharad Yadav as members. Sinha and Maran were in favour of the reforms going through, while Yadav was dead set against them. Joshi and Pant had remained neutral.

Now, however, the anti-reforms caucus within the BJP Cabinet has the upper hand in the GoM. Joshi has been replaced by Balasahib Vikhey Patil, known for his pro-labour views and with Singh out, the only strong supporter of labour reforms is Maran. Sahib Singh Verma, who has replaced Yadav as labour minister, is considered to be neutral on the issue just as Pant is.

In the case of fertiliser policy too, Singh is known to be in favour of cutting down on subsidy support to fertiliser companies and selling off National Fertiliser Corporation — things that Akali Dal, BJP’s key ally in Punjab, has been bitterly opposing.

Besides Singh and Pant, all other members of the GoM — agriculture minister Ajit Singh, fertiliser and chemicals minister S.S.Dhindsa and petroleum minister Ram Naik — are believed to be in favour of milder cuts in subsidy.

With elections coming, no political party really wants to pick a fight with the farmer lobby, which is one the key beneficiaries of the fertiliser policy, along with the fertiliser companies themselves, who again are leading contributors to election campaign funds in several western and northern states.

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