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Singh puts Left on loyalty test
- How can I rely on you, PM asks price critics

New Delhi, June 2: Petrol has ignited a spark in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Tossing up an uncharacteristic mixture of anguish and forceful arguments, Singh today asked visiting Left leaders who opposed an increase in fuel prices: “How can I rely on your support for the future when we cannot even stand together in this hour of crisis'”

Petrol and diesel prices are expected to be raised in a day or two but cooking gas and kerosene are likely to be spared. The increase is unlikely to match the surge in international prices.

Meetings with the Left leaders to persuade them to agree to the increase have been keeping the Prime Minister busy for the last two days.

Yesterday, Singh met the CPM’s Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury and seems to have softened them up but he could not get a public endorsement. This evening, it was the turn of CPI leaders A.B. Bardhan and D. Raja and the Forward Bloc’s Debabrata Biswas.

Another irritant had crept in overnight with the CPM saying that the CBI should revive the case quashed by Delhi High Court. ( )

On fuel prices, the CPI’s stand was no different from that of the CPM, prompting Singh to ask why they are not willing to take responsibility for crucial, but unpleasant, economic decisions.

At one point during the 45-minute discussion, the Prime Minister said “it is not very clear on whose behalf I am running the government”, according to a source. Singh added that by relentlessly opposing reforms, the Left is making his task difficult.

Singh also pleaded inability to concede the Left’s demand to pass on the price burden to oil companies. “What will you do if the petroleum price hits $60 a litre'” (It has crossed $54 now.)

Along with economics, the Prime Minister also dealt a political hand. He told the Left leaders that their objection to a hike in fuel prices would stoke opposition within his own party.

“A section of Congressmen will start opposing the hike asking why should they take the responsibility of the decision to increase prices,” the source quoted Singh as saying. Congress leaders have not yet started speaking up but ally Laloo Prasad Yadav, facing an election in Bihar, has voiced his opposition to the hike.

The Left leaders heard out the Prime Minister but Bardhan reportedly told him that there is no running away from the “hot seat” and he will have to manage the contradictions of a coalition.

This is not the first time the Prime Minister has met Left leaders separately to lobby for reforms. It is not that the entire Left is opposed to Singh’s initiatives. Left leaders like Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee share some of Singh’s concerns.

For instance, Bhattacharjee and his colleague Nirupam Sen are reportedly of the opinion that the CPM’s central leadership should not have bulldozed the government into raising the provident fund interest rate to 9.5 per cent.

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