The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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What politicians try to project as the local angle often misses the larger point. The call for an Orissa bandh on Thursday is one more example of the larger interest being sacrificed at the altar of local politics. As one of the most backward states in India, Orissa needs to emerge quickly into the new era of economic liberalization in order to make up for lost time. But the politicians who have called the bandh to protest against New Delhi’s decision to disinvest the state-owned National Aluminium Company are obviously slow learners. Their argument that the decision would rob the state of its lone profit-making public sector unit smacks of the resistance to change that has stalled its economic progress.

That even the ruling Biju Janata Dal, the BJP’s partner in the National Democratic Alliance, has joined the bandh bandwagon shows the lure of competitive chauvinism in local politics. It is surprising that the chief minister, Mr Naveen Patnaik, is leading the opposition to NALCO’s disinvestment. His government has already taken steps to privatize a large number of state enterprises. In a white paper issued last year, the government announced its policy to reduce its stakes in such units in the “non-core sector” to 26 per cent. The Centre too has proposed to reduce the government stake in NALCO from 87 per cent at present to 26 per cent. Orissa was among the first states to redefine its industrial policy in the light of the liberalized economic regime of the early Nineties. It was also the first state to privatize power distribution. Although the state’s power reforms are still grappling with their teething problems, Mr Patnaik did nothing to derail them.

The real reason for Mr Patnaik’s about-turn seems to be more political than anything else. For some time now, desertions and dissensions have made things difficult for him within his own party. The NALCO issue has become a rallying cry for those party colleagues who want to challenge his leadership. As the main opposition party, the Congress is predictably trying to exploit the issue to score political points against the chief minister. Unfortunately, Mr Patnaik himself seems to have been caught in the web of narrow local politics. The result is an ugly race among the politicians to project their partisan battle as a fight for Orissa. Both Mr Patnaik and his rivals will do the state incalculable damage if Orissa’s tryst with the new economy fails or is delayed because of their shortsighted politics. If Orissa failed to come up the economic ladder despite its mineral and other resources, it was largely due to the lopsided state policies. As it is, the politics of bandhs is out of step with the new milieu of private enterprise. Such politics means a double fault if it is aimed at stalling an economic renewal that is long overdue. Mr Patnaik should take the lead in persuading other parties to call off the bandh. Orissa’s interests are better served by opening it to more and speedier privatization, not just of NALCO, but of the state’s own enterprises.

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