| Naik: Still not convinced
New Delhi, Oct. 8: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee may be talking tough on the disinvestment process, but the anti-selloff group within his Cabinet is not yet ready to accept a compromise formula being pushed by the PMO. The plan calls on state-run oil companies to partner private sector bidders in the controversial sale of petrol marketers — BPCL and HPCL
They feel it would be politically suicidal to accept such a compromise after they have taken a nationalistic tone in their attack on the policy of strategic disinvestment, which allows new monopolies to develop.
Petroleum minister Ram Naik denied he had agreed to such a proposal. “I have not yet seen any such proposal .…how can I comment on anything till I have seen it.”
Top petroleum ministry officials also confirmed that no such proposal had been made “formally or informally” by either the PMO or the disinvestment ministry.
Naik plans to hold another strategy meeting with defence minister George Fernandes, his ally on the disinvestment front, to try and stall any such move. Fernandes has earlier joined ranks with him and human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi to foil attempts to sell off BPCL and HPCL.
In a strongly-worded letter to the Prime Minister, Fernandes has said the current system of strategic sales tantamounts to “handing over entities created with the wealth of the people to further enrich the already rich.”
The line which Naik and Fernandes are planning to take is that the proposal will show the NDA as puppets in the hands of corporate houses that are trying to earn riches from the government’s selloff programme.
They are also planning to point out that the best way to benchmark a price, even if the government decides on a strategic sale, is to first go in for public flotations in oil companies.
Naik and his supporters within the Cabinet also plan to take their case to deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and ask him to jointly adjudicate the matter along with the Prime Minister. Naik pointedly made it clear “the issue will be decided by the leaders — the PM, deputy PM and the NDA chief (George Fernandes).”
This seems to indicate that the undercurrent of defiance to the Prime Minister remains despite a decision within party and NDA circles not to go public on the issue.
The current proposal of PSUs partnering private oil firms, which has been floated by pro-divestment ministers and is being actively sold by disinvestment minister Arun Shourie and finance minister Jaswant Singh’s offices, is being viewed as fantastic by Naik’s office.
Said the chairman of one of the state-run oil companies, which is supposed to partner a private player in the bidding: “We know our boards are dictated by government policy but we never realised that Petronas and Shell boards, too, are governed by what the ministry of disinvestment decides.”