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Privatise, no, divest, yes

New Delhi, May 15: The Congress today ruled out privatisation of profit-making public sector units, especially blue-chip oil giants which, Manmohan Singh said, are “strategic companies”.

Attempting a semantic balancing act, Singh, the former finance minister, said: “We are not in favour of privatisation as an ideology.… Divestment, yes.”

“We will have to draw a distinction between divestment and privatisation.”

Singh’s wordplay was motivated by two aims: the first was to cosy up to the Left which sees privatisation as a red rag. The second was to quell fears on the stock market where investors hammered shares of public sector companies and sent the sensex skidding by 330 points yesterday.

By saying that divestment was very much on the new government’s radar screen, the Congress was attempting to calm the frazzled nerves of foreign institutional investors.

Singh also said the Congress would pursue reforms that would promote investment and encourage enterprises to ratchet up growth and generate jobs.

The Left has been clamouring for the closure of the disinvestment ministry.

“Whether to have disinvestment ministry or department or commission is a matter of detail,” Singh said.

This means the Congress will not abandon the concept. But full-blown privatisation of the kind spearheaded by Arun Shourie that saw the sale of Balco, Maruti Udyog, VSNL and IPCL might be over.

Strongly defending public sector role in oil, Singh said even the BJP was against privatisation of ONGC.

The Congress is unfazed by the stock meltdown. “We are used to irrational exuberance and unwarranted pessimism. Once the uncertainty of government formation is over, the market will recognise the Congress-led government is pro-growth, pro-investment and pro-employment,” party leader Jairam Ramesh said.

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