The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Centre faces oil selloff heat

New Delhi, April 24: The Opposition today turned up the heat on the government’s disinvestment programme, forcing the Lok Sabha to shut down for the better part of the working day.

Congress MPs stormed the well of the House, shouting: “Desh ko bechna bandh karo (Stop selling the country).”

The big fight started with MPs questioning the government’s decision to divest oil majors Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum without taking Parliament into confidence.

The Congress protest was strengthened by support not only from other Opposition parties, but also from National Democratic Alliance partner Shiv Sena.

When Congress chief whip Priya Ranjan Das Munshi claimed that 300 MPs, including those from the NDA, supported him on the divestment issue, none of the ruling party’s allies protested.

The uproar ultimately forced BJP seniors to hold an impromptu meeting. Sources said they would pressure the government to delay the selloff but not rescind it, so that the Opposition is unable to gain any electoral mileage from the agitation.

Parliament proceedings through the day were punctuated with a spate of notices for an adjournment motion against the sale of the petroleum majors. Das Munshi demanded a “categorical assurance” from the BJP-led government that it would stall the sale.

Das Munshi threatened that the Opposition would not cooperate till such an assurance was given, claiming that the demand had the support of most of the most of the BJP allies.

Shiv Sena leader Chandrakant Khaire pointedly said that even petroleum minister Ram Naik had opposed the disinvestment.

An offer from parliamentary affairs minister Sushma Swaraj that the government has no objection to a debate on the issue and is willing to advance the date of the discussion from May 8, which was fixed earlier, did not satisfy the Opposition.

Das Munshi and other Congress seniors said the government should not have gone ahead without taking the House into confidence as the move was controversial.

The Congress has all along maintained that the two oil PSUs were nationalised by Acts of Parliament and should be first denationalised.

The BJP had responded by seeking the opinion of solicitor-general Soli Sorabjee, who said the government could go ahead with divestment by merely tabling information on its intent.

Das Munshi later said the BJP has also reneged on its assurance that no final decision on the selloff would be taken till the debate was over.

“But I have information that the process has almost been wrapped up. We would have been debating a dead issue if I had delayed bringing this to the notice of the House,” he said.

The Congress and the CPM want the government to bring the solicitor-general before the House to explain his stand.

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