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Centre selloff huddle

New Delhi, Sept. 26: Arun Shourie met L.K. Advani today to discuss how to continue the privatisation process in the wake of the September 16 Supreme Court ruling that parliamentary approval is necessary for the sale of Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum.

The divestment minister, normally willing to talk to reporters, refused to comment on what transpired at the meeting with the deputy Prime Minister. Evidently, the ministers must have discussed ways to keep the divestment process on track.

Senior ministers are keen to continue with economic reforms and accelerate privatisation as they believe India’s growth rate could reach nine per cent if the current trend continues.

The apex court verdict threatens to derail divestment altogether and raises questions whether the ruling will apply to companies that have already been privatised. If the situation is not handled well, it could cost the government dear ahead of Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

The A.B. Vajpayee government is inclined to seek clarifications from the Supreme Court on whether the verdict applies only to BPCL and HPCL or to every public sector company set up by an act of Parliament.

On receiving the clarification, the Centre will decide whether to approach a constitutional bench to take a fresh look at the sale of the oil majors or to seek parliamentary approval for the divestment.

A joint session of Parliament could help the government rustle up the numbers required to push a law through. The Centre had convened a joint session to pass the Prevention of Terrorism Act as it knew it lacked a majority in the Rajya Sabha.

But the government would rather avoid Parliament now, for the issue is emotive and elections are round the corner. Besides, it would take a while to secure parliamentary approval.

Most Opposition parties are opposed to the sale of prized public sector companies like BPCL and HPCL. A debate in Parliament would give them the chance to air their views.

Even so, if the government has no other option, it will approach Parliament. Already, it has started working on a single omnibus bill which will allow it to privatise companies without repealing the acts that had been used to nationalise those organisations earlier.

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