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Sonia prods PM on price rise

New Delhi, June 29: Sonia Gandhi today called an emergency party meeting to tell the Prime Minister and finance minister that the soaring prices of essential commodities must be reined in at once.

The three-hour Congress Working Committee meeting, held at Sonia’s residence and presided over by her, urged the government to work out an “effective mechanism to manage the demand and supply of essential commodities” and “check the rise of prices in order to reduce its impact on the vulnerable sections of the society”.

The Congress president reportedly realised how bad the problem was during her visit to Rajasthan this week. Local party workers convinced her that the price rise had made the Centre unpopular and unless it was checked, the Congress could never hope for a revival in this BJP-ruled state.

On her return, Sonia called the meeting of the working committee, the party’s apex decision-making body. Although P. Chidambaram is not a member of the working committee nor a permanent or special invitee to it, he was summoned to the meeting.

Until last night, the word from 10 Janpath had been that the finance minister would not be present. But this morning, sources said, a decision was taken to ask him over lest people think the Prime Minister was getting the flak.

Chidambaram, who spoke after Sonia, stressed how “buoyant” the economy was by quoting statistics on the gross domestic product and forex, sources said. He mentioned the government’s recent measures of importing pulses, wheat and sugar.

But Chidambaram was reportedly stopped in his tracks by CWC members who asked that while “statistics looked good on pink papers, how did they translate into political good for the Congress'”

The finance minister was reminded that the Congress had come to power on the “aam admi” plank.

Manmohan Singh, who spoke after Chidambaram, restricted himself to the recent petrol and diesel price hikes. He mentioned that when the Vajpayee government was in power, the price of oil was $23 per barrel and two years later, it was $70. Therefore, he argued, he had no choice but to increase the prices.

Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee later briefed the media on the proposals thrown up to control the price rise. He spoke of putting a cap on food liberalisation, checks on “forward trading” in cereals and pulses, and advising the states to get cracking on hoarders and black marketeers.

At the working committee meeting, some members are believed to have indirectly criticised the agriculture ministry, saying that in a coalition government, no partner can “escape blame” if things go wrong.

The Congress is upset with NCP leader and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar for allowing the situation to come to such a pass. “At the end of the day, as the largest party of the coalition, the Congress becomes accountable for his faults,” a functionary said.

As they discussed farmer suicides, the members rejected Pawar’s alleged plan to dismantle the public distribution system and instead argued for it to be strengthened in the northern and western states.

One of them claimed that although suicides were reported from some southern states, too, the presence of a “strong” PDS had stemmed the tide.

The Prime Minister is scheduled to travel tomorrow to Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, from where a spate of farmer suicides have been reported.

Apart from Chidambaram, the other special invitees to the meeting were Jairam Ramesh, the minister of state for commerce, Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil, who heads the parliamentary consultative committee on agricultural prices, and S.S. Surjewala, a leader of the Congress’s farmers front. Ramesh was filling in for commerce minister Kamal Nath, who is abroad.

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