The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Some thrust, others squirm

Mount Abu, Nov. 8: Some chief ministers stood their ground, while others squirmed on the first day of the Congress conclave at Mount Abu which witnessed a distinct pro-reforms tilt.

Chief ministers Amarinder Singh of Punjab, Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh and A.K. Antony of Kerala were assertive in challenging “apolitical experts”, while candidly admitting their shortcomings in some areas of governance.

The Punjab chief minister led the pack, questioning the rationale of opposing disinvestment of profit-making public sector undertakings.

“Some of these PSUs are already going downhill. There is an urgent need to privatise before they start making losses,” he said. Amarinder denied any knowledge of the AICC’s stand that it was against the sale of profit-making PSUs.

The in-house discussions on rural development, agriculture and employment also saw the Punjab chief minister taking on the experts by finding loopholes in the theory propounded by economist Y.K. Alagh.

As Alagh stressed on more production of wheat in Punjab, the former maharaja of Patiala wondered how more wheat and paddy would find consumers as hundreds of tonnes of wheat were rotting in godowns.

Amarinder laced his statements with facts and figures to show that there was a case for shifting to crops such as chilli, capsicum and tomatoes instead of sticking to traditional crops like wheat. As Alagh searched for a counter-argument, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi nodded her head in approval as if to indicate the chief minister was right.

Several chief ministers felt the idea of inviting “apolitical experts” was not practical. As administrators, they said, they were well aware of the issues and constantly hired services of consultants.

“Our experience is that people like Alagh have a theoretical framework that often does not match with practical problems or political exigencies,” pointed out a chief minister from a north Indian state.

Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, his Maharashtra counterpart Vilasrao Deshmukh and Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi, however, had some anxious moments while making their presentations.

Sonia kept a close watch on how they defended charges of starvation deaths, communal riots and terrorist violence in their states. However, she did not come to their rescue when AICC general secretaries and Congress Working Committee members asked searching questions.

Deshmukh blamed the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad for engineering riots in Sholapur, Aurangabad and other parts of Maharashtra, while Gehlot said the “indifferent attitude” of the Centre was responsible for the deaths in Rajasthan.

Gogoi and Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi sought to make a distinction between law and order problems and acts of terrorism by Naxalites and the Ulfa.

Sonia scored several political points by getting the party to go along on her political agenda. However, the meet once again failed to evolve a consensus on disinvestment, reduction in public expenditure, uniform rate for power and water tariff.

This, however, did not prevent the Congress chief from noticing that the chief ministers who made confident presentations also owned up their failures while others tried to paint a rosy picture and refused to acknowledge any drawback in their presentations.

This was highlighted by Amarinder Singh admitting that his government had failed to implement the panchayati raj system, adding that he would sit with his Maharashtra and Karnataka counterparts to “learn a few ropes”. Digivijay Singh, on his part, admitted that his government’s track record in the health, energy and roads sectors was poor. S.M. Krishna said his handling of the Cauvery water dispute left a lot to be desired.

The “self-criticism” pleased Sonia, who said she was glad that the chief ministers had the moral courage to admit failures. The Congress chief comforting the gathering, saying the purpose of such an exercise was not to find fault with anyone but to interact and learn from one another. “There would be failures but we must learn, overcome these short-comings,” she said.

Sonia seemed most absorbed in the discussions on gender. While some CWC members appeared tired and often dozed off, she remained alert, taking down copious notes throughout the discussions that went on for hours.

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