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Centaur sale row grounds Centre

New Delhi, Dec. 4: The government today tried to fight its way out of charges of impropriety in the disinvestment of Centaur Hotel, Mumbai, by admitting that re-sale of the property by the Batras to Sahara has violated the sale contract and needed to be probed by the law ministry.

Disinvestment minister Arun Shourie tried to pacify a visibly agitated upper house after charges were levelled against the sale by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Nirupam during a short duration discussion on disinvestment in Rajya Sabha. Nirupam alleged disinvestment officials were involved in manipulating the deal and hinted that it might be a classic case of crony capitalism as Shourie had studied in school with a director of the Batra group.

“We have sent the matter of the sale of Centaur to the law ministry because we do not want to put the entire disinvestment process under a cloud,” Shourie hastened to say in a reply punctuated with demands for a CBI enquiry, white papers on disinvestment and sloganeering.

“If this deal is found to be fraudulent, the personal guarantee of the owner of the A. L. Batra group will be encashed,” he added. The minister admitted that the sale violated clauses of the sale contract that stipulated any resale could be done only with the consent of the government.

Nirupam had pointed out that sale of 100 per cent shares in the company by Batra Hospitality, which had bought the hotel from the government, to the Sahara group, was tantamount to a change in ownership violating clause 13.4 of the sale agreement.

The Batras, who are known RSS sympathisers, bought the hotel for Rs 83 crore last month only to resell it for Rs 122 crore more to the Sahara group.

The demand for a CBI enquiry into the deal comes around the time crucial meetings are being held between Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani and ministers involved in the controversy surrounding the entire disinvestment process.

The debate saw several charges being traded—that the government was selling off family silver at low prices, including the sale of aluminium major Balco for just Rs 550 crore; allowing buyers to siphon off hard earned PSU money into their own companies as in the case of the Tatas drawing on VSNL’s huge reserves, and charges of impropriety in a sale where the buyer has RSS links and made a 40 per cent profit within weeks of his purchasing the property—which threw the House into pandemonium.

CPM MP Deepankar Mukherjee who also spoke on the issue said, “These assets are not of the Sangh Parivar but of Bharat Parivar.” Nirupam’s charges will obviously strengthen the hands of the anti-disinvestment faction who will be taking up the Centaur and other cases of disinvestments that have left the public at large suspicious of the entire process.

The fact that Nirupam is making these demands also implies Shiv Sena Supremo Bal Thackeray’s support for this lobby within the Cabinet and that he will probably intercede at the highest level in favour of this group. This represents a shot in the arm for the anti-disinvestment lobby as the DMK and Telugu Desam have been lukewarm to them and have in fact come up with mild statements of disapproval of their actions.

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