The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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BJP balances after skidding on oil

New Delhi, Sept. 17: Petroleum minister Ram Naik has said the Supreme Court’s verdict stalling the sale of Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum will not affect the divestment process.

“The court has not created any obstacle. There is no reason why this judgment would be a hurdle in the way of other decisions related to disinvestment. When one talks of hurdles and roadblocks, it reflects a state of mind more than anything else,” he told reporters today.

Naik met journalists at the BJP headquarters after the weekly responsibility of interacting with party workers which cabinet ministers have been assigned by rotation. Although he was over and done with by 2 pm, he stayed back for three hours to brief Maharashtra reporters on the hike in the Mumbai suburban railway fares and then to speak on the apex court’s verdict, which, he later said, was not on his agenda.

Reiterating his description of the judgment as “historic”, Naik said it has given the government a “second chance” to look at the question of divesting the oil majors. “I will read the whole judgment now. So far I have only seen the operative part which does not give the reasoning. I can take a view only after going through the judgment carefully, but I will be present when the cabinet meets again on this matter,” he said.

Naik was opposed to the HPCL-BPCL sale, but eventually went along with the cabinet decision. “My views were well known, but once the cabinet took a decision on January 26, all ministers were party to it. But from January 26 to September 16, I did not utter a word,” he said.

He insisted there was no difference between his response and that of disinvestment minister Arun Shourie, who called the verdict a “major setback”. “The sentiments are the same but the words are different,” he said but, faced with a howl of laughter, joined the reporters and made light of his comment.

Naik later admitted that he was unable to bring his ministerial colleagues round to his views. “But now there is a second chance.” He added that the cabinet decision was based on the opinion given by attorney-general Soli Sorabjee.

The minister brushed aside the apprehension that the judgment would adversely impact the stock market. “The overall sensex has, in fact, increased. Even the share price of the two companies remained constant. In the last six months, they were doing very well,” he said.

Naik’s presence at 11 Ashoka Road apparently gave a fillip to those BJP members who were privately unhappy with the government’s pro-liberalisation agenda but felt shackled to speak out after the leadership backed the policy. Sources claimed that the coming days could see the swadeshi-versus-videshi debate being revived and possibly getting reflected in the discussions before the election manifesto is drafted.

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