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Bengal on lips to stress change

London, Sept. 20: Manmohan Singh today assured British captains of industry that the Left would not derail the economic reform process in India and that he had discussed this very issue with veteran CPM leader Jyoti Basu before flying to London.

Indian officials who were present during the Prime Minister's hour-long meeting with heads of about 20 leading British companies said they wanted to know whether Singh's government would be able to continue with economic reforms.

On insurance, the Prime Minister gave an undertaking that the pledges made in the last budget, of increasing foreign direct investment limits, would be kept.

He admitted that this required parliamentary approval and that the Left parties were opposed to the measure but he would again try to turn them round.

Singh went out of his way to mention his lunch meeting with Basu on Saturday as a way of trying to convince the British that even the Marxists of Bengal were broadly in favour of reforms.

He reassured the British businessmen that the reform process began in earnest in 1991 and had continued despite changes of government. 'India today is more open than ever before,' he added.

India, he emphasised, was involved in a unique experiment of trying to reach consensus through democratic means.

Singh also sought to clear the air on privatisation. 'We do not accept privatisation as an ideology. Wherever it serves the national purpose, we will pursue privatisation.'

The Prime Minister's point about the Left's mature attitude to reform was apparently backed up by Lord Sterling, chairman of P&, which is involved in building a port near Calcutta.

Others present at the meeting represented the wide range of British investments, past, present and future, in India. They included Sir Robert Wilson, chairman of the BG group, which has a major presence in gas and oil exploration in India; Bill Gammell, chairman, Cairn Energy, which has had some success with gas and oil exploration in Rajasthan; Martin Broughton, chairman of British Airways; and Peter Sutherland, chairman of British Petroleum.

Collectively, the group could make a significant contribution to British investment in India and the heavyweight turnout reflected the Prime Minister's own high standing as an economist educated, as British papers love to point out, at both Cambridge and Oxford.

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