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CLEARING THE AIR
- Temporary ministers and energy policies

Delhi's durbar culture is used to the rise and fall of individuals and of groups with clout to influence policy and statecraft. But the most understated rise and decline in recent memory is that of ambassadors in the national capital belonging to the member states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Chanakyapuri has a surfeit of special-interest groups within its diplomatic community, which is one of the largest in any capital anywhere in the world. The European ambassadors have their group, so do the Africans, the Arabs and the members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Deputy chiefs of mission of small embassies in New Delhi have their own 'small missions group', while some time ago, Latin American envoys to India could collectively rival any gathering of fashion models and Miss Universe contestants.

But it was not until the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, appointed Mani Shankar Aiyar as his petroleum minister that OPEC envoys in New Delhi were even taken note of as a separate group. One of the very first meetings which Aiyar had after he assumed charge of the petroleum ministry was with the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to India. Shortly thereafter, Aiyar collectively brought to the ministry all the OPEC envoys in the capital and they were asked to account for the rise in global oil prices at a time when the world was actually awash with oil.

As a group, the OPEC ambassadors in Chanakyapuri had arrived. But collectively, they have disappeared as quickly as they arrived on the scene with the recent change in political leadership of the petroleum ministry. Just as the much publicized oil advisory committee, set up by Aiyar to integrate and restructure public sector oil companies, has been consigned to the trash can with the change.

Continued interaction with OPEC envoys in the capital ' and their bosses in the OPEC countries ' as part of an institutional dialogue by the petroleum ministry could have been beneficial to India at a time when the Americans are trying their best to vilify and bury the organization of oil exporters. This is a time when oil exporters are feeling as vulnerable as importers of fuel for economic, political, cultural and even religious reasons. An emerging power and a growing economy like India has the potential to attract resources ' not just resources that lie beneath their sands ' because of their present vulnerability. These are resources on which America and Europe have thrived for many, many decades and attracting such resources is a policy, which the prime minister has tried to implement by such initiatives as inviting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to be the chief guest at this year's Republic Day.

Despite the innuendos, gossip and rumours which are the drawing-room staple of New Delhi's elite these days, it cannot be denied that Murli Deora, who has succeeded Aiyar in the petroleum ministry, is among a minority of MPs who have a world-view, even though Deora's is a world-view with which many people will disagree. It is, therefore, surprising that, at least for tactical reasons, he has not chosen to pursue some of the initiatives which Aiyar began in the petroleum ministry.

Politics, in many oil-exporting countries, thrives on gossip and rumours of the very kind which has vitiated the atmosphere in the petroleum ministry and, to some extent, in all the corridors of power in New Delhi, over the circumstances surrounding the replacement of Aiyar by the Mumbai veteran. Palace coups and political assassinations have taken place over centuries in some OPEC states based on such rumours. If the air is not quickly cleared and facts are not placed on record about the change of guard at the petroleum ministry, there is every danger that this ministry might quickly slip back into the morass in which it has wallowed ever since its creation. It is not something Manmohan Singh can allow by way of drift at a time when energy security has implications for the country, which are far too important than they were when India's economy was a lethargic giant, restricted by Central planning and the licence raj.

During a stay in the capital of less than a week, this columnist discovered that salacious gossip was being passed around in New Delhi as fact about the change at the petroleum ministry, causing immense damage to the credibility of the Central government and an erosion of confidence that the prime minister's personal probity is enough of a check against the ways of the Congress. Some of these rumours that are now accepted in the capital as gospel truth have an eerie ring that is reminiscent of the way stories started about defence deals in the Rajiv Gandhi government, ultimately leading to the Bofors time bomb, which made that government a lame duck during the second half of its tenure.

The main reason why Aiyar's change of portfolio is attracting attention on a scale way beyond what is given to a routine cabinet reshuffle is because it is widely accepted that Aiyar is easily the best and the most dynamic minister in Manmohan Singh's cabinet. Having said that, it is unlikely that anything about his change of portfolio, and what most people expect to happen within the petroleum ministry as a result of that change, will acquire Bofors-style dimensions. Especially if J. Jayalalithaa romps home in the Tamil Nadu elections, effectively eroding what little electoral base Aiyar has in that state.

Most people in the capital who passionately dissect Singh's decision to hand over the petroleum ministry to Deora forget that Aiyar was, indeed, the prime minister's temporary choice for that ministry when the United Progressive Alliance cabinet was sworn in almost two years ago. Those privy to the negotiations which led to the naming of cabinet members and their portfolios then will recall that Aiyar was originally chosen to handle three subjects: panchayati raj, tribal affairs and culture.

Sonia Gandhi now knows ' if she did not know it two decades ago ' that these were the very subjects which Aiyar handled when he was an aide to Rajiv Gandhi in the PMO. Aiyar has made no secret during his years as an MP during P.V. Narasimha Rao's prime ministership that these are three subjects closest to his heart. Many plans fell by the wayside as negotiations progressed towards cabinet formation in May, 2004. One such plan was that Singh would hold 'temporary' charge of the finance ministry, in addition to being prime minister. Another change in the original arrangement was in the portfolios for which Aiyar was slotted and the ultimate decision to give him 'temporary' charge of the petroleum ministry. Indeed, it is a matter of record that Aiyar used to describe himself initially as 'temporary' minister in charge of petroleum.

It is yet another example of the damage which institutionalized bureaucracy can do to delicate political processes that the cabinet secretariat told the petroleum ministry at that time that there is no such thing in their books as a 'temporary' minister and that Aiyar and the ministry should stop using such a description of the minister. This is the same cabinet secretariat which told Atal Bihari Vajpayee's PMO ' when Vajpayee made L.K. Advani his deputy prime minister ' that there is no constitutional role for a deputy prime minister. For a while, the powerful cabinet secretariat tried to create hurdles in the way of Advani fulfilling his elevated role.

There are now stories galore about how Aiyar rubbed the prime minister up the wrong way, about his argumentative style at cabinet meetings, and so on. After Singh presented his first budget as finance minister in Rao's government, opposition to that reformist budget was stiffer from within the Congress than from the opposition. Typically, instead of taking the initiative and doing something himself, Rao called a two-day meeting of the Congress parliamentary committee to discuss the budget. Sixty-three Congress MPs spoke at that meeting, 62 of them assailing Singh and his budget. The lone supporter of Singh's reform initiative was Aiyar.

There are many other similar incidents of that time when Aiyar was a crucial link between Singh and the Congress. It is unlike a gentleman prime minister to forget such a bond. Which is why he must clear the air about the change in the petroleum ministry and prevent collateral damage to the country's foreign and energy policies resulting from that change.

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