The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fernandes in selloff sulk

New Delhi, Oct.7: NDA convener and defence minister George Fernandes is cut up with deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani for “changing tack” on disinvestment.

The Fernandes camp feels that without Advani’s crucial support, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee would not have managed to turn the tables on the anti-disinvestment lobby within the government and the BJP.

When Fernandes, human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi and petroleum minister Ram Naik — members of the group of ministers on divestment — raised the issue, Advani had backed them.

Sources said the deputy Prime Minister was instrumental in ensuring that a decision on disinvestment in the two oil giants— BPCL and HPCL — was deferred by three months.

NDA sources said that by roping in Advani’s perceived rival Joshi, Fernandes rattled supporters of Advani. Much before the disinvestment row came out in the open, the ties between Joshi and Fernandes were growing. Joshi was the only Cabinet minister invited to speak at a Lok Jan Morcha meeting on July 4 to campaign against the economic reforms.

Joshi’s opposition to disinvestment is being seen as an attempt to endear himself to the RSS amid reports that Nagpur is growing disenchanted with Advani. But Advani deftly sided with Vajpayee to torpedo the plans of the Joshi-Fernandes camp, which otherwise would have emerged powerful.

When the Cabinet discussed the matter, disinvestment minister Arun Shourie said the selloff would not adversely affect the outcome of polls and that the government should go by economic reason, rather than political considerations.

The opposite side argued that people are facing difficulties and a backlash at the hustings is possible. Sources said Advani supported Shourie. But at a subsequent meeting on September 1, he backed the group of ministers and then came full circle by backing the Prime Minister.

Before the Cabinet committee on disinvestment met last week, Shourie had said “it was up to the PM and the deputy PM” to take a decision. Wondering what prompted Shourie to bring Advani into the picture, an NDA leader said: “Normally in the Cabinet form of democracy, the unwritten rule is that ministers take the name of only the PM.”

It is also becoming clear that the need to create political space, rather than ideology, was driving the key players. Ever since Advani became Deputy Prime Minister, Fernandes was uncomfortable. Sources said Fernandes is now trying to ensure he is not sidelined within the coalition.

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