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Left & reform side by side

New Delhi, Feb. 24: First, the Left was pacified with commitments on the social sector, then followed the almost daily dose of relaxation of foreign investment rules.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and finance minister P. Chidambaram held out an olive branch towards Left leaders this morning and assured them the budget would reflect their concerns for the social sector.

Chidambaram said after the meeting that 'the government has benefited from the (Left's) suggestions' while his ministry announced easier foreign investment norms for housing.

Foreign investors can now establish wholly-owned subsidiaries to construct housing projects without having to seek government approval. The minimum plot size of housing projects allowed for foreign investment has been cut from 100 to 25 acres.

In recent days, the Left has periodically hit out at the government's economic policies, particularly the easing of foreign investment guidelines, threatening to bite as the United Progressive Alliance's 'watchdog'. In contrast, the mood was mellow today after the meeting with Singh, Chidambaram, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and defence minister Pranab Mukherjee.

'We reminded the Prime Minister that the budget must meet the commitments in the common minimum programme,' said CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury, who used the 'watchdog' description earlier in the week.

He did not smack his lips but suggested a state of satisfaction. 'The finance minister assured (us) he will consider them positively,' Yechury said about the Left's demands.

The Left's areas of concern are creating jobs, expanding education and healthcare and increasing money for farm infrastructure. It wants the finance minister to allocate Rs 50,000 crore for the social sector and seems to believe more than that can be set aside.

Chidambaram did most of the talking on the budget. The Left did not join issue with him over policies they object to and for which they blame the finance minister more than the Prime Minister.

They did mention banking reforms but the tone stood in contrast to Wednesday's 'anguish and sense of humiliation' the Left said it would convey to the Prime Minister about the government relaxing foreign investment rules.

Banking federations will hold a protest rally in Delhi on March 11 and observe a strike on March 22.

CPI leader A.B. Bardhan told Singh he would address the rally. Bardhan also said what he was going to talk about. On an earlier occasion, his remarks had upset Singh.

The Left leaders indicated that the strategy would remain the same. 'We will protest and agitate outside. Take these issues to the people,' said Yechury.

They are awaiting the budget proposals to see to what extent the government accepts their demands that number a dozen.

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