New Delhi, Oct. 5: Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s straight-from-the-shoulder address on economic reform and divestment appears to have chastened defence minister George Fernandes.
Three days after he went into a huddle with Union ministers Murli Manohar Joshi and Ram Naik — both opposed to the sale of state-owned oil companies to a strategic investor — Fernandes today demanded a speedy resolution of the HPCL and BPCL divestment issue.
“There is no justification for putting it off for three months. We should take a decision as early as possible in the next few weeks,” he said, briefing the press for the first time after the differences burst into the open. The Cabinet Committee on Disinvestment had put off a decision on the issue in September.
Fernandes was at pains to dispel the impression that he was “anti-disinvestment”. “What I have raised over the past two to two-and-a-half years is that whatever work (on disinvestment) has taken place should be analysed to see if any course correction is required and it should be undertaken,” he said. He stressed that he had only voiced his concern.
Sources close to Fernandes said he was open to two “compromise” formulae: one, strategic sale of one of the two PSUs and public disbursal of shares in the other; and two, allowing ONGC and the Gas Authority of India Limited to participate in bidding, “preferably” as equal partners to private players, Indian or foreign.
The second formula was worked out by BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley and disinvestment minister Arun Shourie.
Jaitley called on Fernandes a day after the much-publicised meeting with Naik and Joshi. While Fernandes was non-committal and said that “I keep talking to Jaitley and this issue also we talked about”, BJP sources said there was reason to believe the defence minister was taking a “reasonable” position.
Sources close to Fernandes said: “Allowing ONGC and GAIL to bid, preferably as equal partners along with private firms, would be the most feasible solution. It will allay the fears expressed about national security and about public monopolies being replaced by private monopolies.”
Fernandes also downplayed his meeting with Joshi and Naik, terming it “routine”. “This meeting was nothing special. We (Joshi and I) have breakfast together at least once a month and discuss a whole lot of issues, including political and economic. It was one of those meetings.”
BJP sources said the compromise formulae were acceptable to those in the party who had expressed similar concerns of security and private cartelisation.
Joshi, too, was at pains to dispel the feeling that he would reveal his swadeshi face again after backing FDI at a recent Cabinet meeting, sources said. He reportedly advised Naik not to take his “battle” to the Opposition camp but involve the Congress and the CPM. Naik told reporters last Wednesday that he spoke to Congress leaders Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Shivraj Patil on the sale of oil PSUs.
Even Union ministers, who attended the October 2 RSS function at which sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan lashed out at the “votaries of foreign economy”, have suddenly distanced themselves from his views and were keen to emphasise that they were pro-reform.
A minister of state from the east said: “When was the BJP or, for that matter, the RSS ever anti-reform' In the heyday of Congress socialism, the RSS and the Jan Sangh alone spoke up for a licence and permit-free economic system. That stand holds today. Sudarshan’s only plea was against the unchecked flow of FDI.”
With Fernandes coming around, BJP sources are confident that tackling Joshi and Naik and the swadeshi wing of the parivar will be “much easier”. “This is all within the family,” they said.
But a section of the RSS is upset with Sudarshan’s diatribe because “this will only end up alienating our middle-class support from professionals and businessmen for who reforms is a established reality”.