The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Battle of wits over laws that block divestment

New Delhi, Dec. 9: A battle of wits has begun in Parliament with the BJP doggedly trying to avoid bringing any Bill to the House to repeal Acts passed to nationalise enterprises or set up state-owned companies, as this will mean running the gauntlet of an Opposition-controlled Upper House.

The Opposition has already made up its mind that it will allow a repeal of the Acts — which may become necessary if the government is keen to push ahead with its divestment programme and the Opposition refuses to back down — only if the BJP either agrees to its formula that profit-making PSUs should not be sold or to a compromise on this, which it can show to the electorate as a major concession.

The main Opposition Congress has told the BJP that it does not have to come to Parliament with individual Bills repealing each and every Act of Parliament under which a PSU was set up or nationalised, but can come with a general policy paper on this. Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee has offered the BJP as much.

Sources said the Congress is not really serious about stopping divestment in profit-making PSUs, as pragmatic politics dictate that such a move will prove to be a millstone for the party when it comes to power. However, the Congress would like to wrest some significant concession from the BJP, which it could sell to its labour wing and to middle-class voters who will make or mar its prospects in some eight Assembly elections coming up in the next 10 months.

“There is a minimum consensus today within the Opposition that profit making and strategic PSUs should not be sold off and, naturally, we would like this consensus to be accepted by the ruling party also,” said CPM leader Nilotpal Basu.

“But, whether they accept it or not, they cannot escape the constitutional requirement of repealing Acts of Parliament before disinvesting in those PSUs which were set up by parliamentary statutes.”

The BJP tried to do just that when disinvestment minister Arun Shourie tried to evade Opposition leader Manmohan Singh’s queries on this issue in Parliament today. Shourie counter argued that no repeal was made when management control in Maruti was sold off to Suzuki.

However, the Opposition is clear that if one case has slipped by another should not. The Left has already chalked out its strategy on the inconclusive debate on Shourie’s suo moto statement on disinvestment today, which ended in chaos in the Upper House after MPs invaded the well of the House and the chair had to adjourn the Rajya Sabha.

The CPM will point to the Indian Iron and Steel Company, where the BJP-led government had repealed the Bill nationalising steelmaker Martin & Burn in the early 1970s, even before seriously trying to sell it off. The government had done it then despite opposition from the Left, as it had been advised that sales had to be preceded by a repeal.

Singh pointed out in Parliament that Acts under which Esso and Burmah Shell — now known as HPCL and BPCL — were nationalised provided that the companies are controlled by the Union government or companies owned by it.

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