The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal stamps his authority
- Flowers for gandhi, faith in reform

New Delhi, Oct. 2: Atal Bihari Vajpayee burst out of his recently-woven cocoon of aloofness today to reaffirm his leadership of the government and commitment to economic reform.

On a day three senior Cabinet members held a private anti-divestment conclave and RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan celebrated his return to the capital after a two-year sabbatical with a bitter attack on western economic concepts, an animated Vajpayee made a robust intervention in support of his government’s policy.

It came with a warning that appeared aimed at the group of three — George Fernandes, Murli Manohar Joshi and Ram Naik — which had recently torpedoed oil sector divestment, that it was crossing the limit of his tolerance of differences within the government.

Vajpayee admitted that there was nothing wrong for members of the government to hold separate meetings — a reference to the hour-long huddle of the trio earlier in the day — “but there should be a limit to that”.

After their morning meeting, the three ministers demanded a mid-course review of the divestment policy with focus on whether profit-making public sector units should be sold and whether the oil sector should be included among strategic areas along with the railways, defence and atomic energy. (See Business Telegraph)

Vajpayee fired a spirited reply. “There is a campaign to give the impression as though my government is out to sell everything, including the country. India is not so cheap that I will put it on sale. Mere hote huye, kaun sa mayee ka lal hai jo Bharat ko khareed sakta hai' (That person hasn’t been born who will dare to buy India so long as I am around.)”

If an impression had been gaining ground of late — since the anointment of L.K. Advani as deputy Prime Minister — that Vajpayee’s role in the government and party was waning, a feeling the Prime Minister has done nothing in public to dispel, today’s statement (mark the words: “so long as I am around”) makes it clear who’s boss and who sets policy.

The Prime Minister could not have divined what Sudarshan would say at a Sangh gathering — the two spoke around the same time — but his speech answered the criticism the RSS sarsanghchalak voiced.

Sudarshan declared that those in the government who thought “global” and subscribed to the view that there should be “100 per cent foreign direct investment in all sectors” should be immediately thrown out and only swadeshi votaries retained.

The statement was construed as an attack on disinvestment minister Arun Shourie, who had found himself outwitted at a recent Cabinet meeting on selling government equity in two oil companies, resulting in a postponement of decision-making.

Vajpayee defended divestment and, by implication, Shourie to the hilt, though the Prime Minister had not blocked the stop-selloff brigade at that Cabinet meeting. It is possible Vajpayee may have fathomed the damage the decision to defer a decision on Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum had done to his government’s image — there has been a downgrading of the country’s credit rating also — only after a volley of criticism hit him in the face.

“No policy is static and every policy responds to the need of the hour and can be revised. But even before we have reached a consensus on this, I find an impression has gone around that my government has abandoned the divestment policy. This is misplaced,” he said.

At a ceremony organised by the labour ministry, he made it clear that divestment would go on and indicated that labour reforms were on the anvil. He said it was not right to create an anti-reform atmosphere.

“It will not help the cause of our workforce because their welfare too will have to be looked into in the long run. It is wrong to think reforms will demolish and destroy the country. When I was abroad recently, everybody was praising our achievements on the reform front. But when I came back, I saw there was so much confusion and anxiety.”

Sources close to Vajpayee said he had a one-to-one meeting with Advani before speaking out for divestment. After he convinced himself that Advani and he were on the same wavelength, the Prime Minister went ahead and answered the critics.

Sudarshan used the Gandhian concept of self-reliance and making the village the focus of economic development — on the Mahatma’s birth anniversary — to bolster his case against globalisation and liberalisation.

Linking swadeshi to the quest for India’s “self-pride and self-reliance”, Sudarshan said while the western economy is “centralised, urban-based, high energy consumptive, capital intensive, labour displacing and ecologically destructive”, Gandhi talked of a model that is decentralised, rural-based, low capital intensive and ecology-friendly.

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