The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Advani signal to free reforms from politics

New Delhi, May 20: Coupled with L.K. Advani’s call to Manmohan Singh earlier in the week to cut dependence on the Left was an offer to support “any reform that is vital for India’s economic progress”.

The BJP president’s statement at the Confederation of Indian Industry’s annual session was loaded with the political tactic of encouraging existing divisions between the Congress and the Left to widen.

But there could also have been the hint that the BJP was renewing its commitment to reforms at a forum of business people, cutting itself loose from the recent practice of almost blind opposition in Parliament to score political points.

Advani claimed his party was principally responsible for breaking the industry-politician barrier erected in the socialist era and giving respectability to interactions between the two sides.

“But the point I wish to make here is that the mindset of the ruling political establishment in India became inclusive towards businessmen, private enterprise and the professional class only after the advent of the economic reforms in the 1990s. Previously, this category was excluded because, under a perverted understanding of socialism, it was argued that the ’private sector is an exploiting class’ and ‘profit is a dirty word’,” said Advani.

He said the Vajpayee government gave a “big boost” to politician-business interactions because the BJP never supported the licence raj.

When the BJP returned to the Opposition last May, its conduct in Parliament raised questions if it was revisiting its policy on reforms. It opposed every reform-oriented initiative of the Manmohan Singh government in Parliament and outside.

Take value-added tax, VAT, for instance. The BJP-ruled states refused to introduce VAT. Advani said in TV interviews that while his party had no “fundamental” problem with VAT, it had no option but to oppose it because of the “way the Congress behaved in Jharkhand and Goa”.

The irony was that as finance minister in the National Democratic Alliance regime, Jaswant Singh had set the stage for VAT’s implementation.

Ditto with the Patents (Amendment) Bill, 2005, and the Insurance Regulatory Authority bill. When the Left opposed the patents bill, commerce minister Kamal Nath turned to Advani for help and reminded him that the bill had been moved by the NDA government.

Under pressure from his party and the NDA constituents, Advani insisted that the bill should be sent to a standing committee for a “detailed” discussion. BJP sources conceded they had no ideological objection, but were opposing it for “political” reasons.

In 1999, Advani had made a forceful plea with the dissenters within his party (led by Murli Manohar Joshi) not to block the decision to allow foreign investment in insurance. Now, his party is opposing raising the ceiling on foreign holding in insurance from 26 to 49 per cent.

At the CII meet, Advani changed this tone and went back to his old line of “de-ideologising governance”.

“A nation can achieve great goals and ambitious targets only through broad national consensus,” he said, offering to support the government on reforms.

He added that when the NDA was in government, it constantly tried to “enlarge the area of consensus on economic and other issues”.

BJP sources said the subtext of the speech was a signal to the Prime Minister that he need not get cowed down by the Left’s opposition to stymie reforms because the BJP was on his side.

If such a situation arises where a reform initiative makes its way through Parliament in the face of Left opposition with the BJP’s support, Advani might hope to exacerbate contradictions within the ruling combine in this manner.

Even if this does not achieve the objective of actually destroying the Congress-Left alliance, the often-uneasy relationship could give the impression of being fragile, which should suit the BJP.

It also seems the BJP will be serious about parliamentary business from the next session (July-August) with the caveat that the government stops being “vindictive”.

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