The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Allies’ phone punch on Arun

New Delhi, May 7: Like his predecessor Pramod Mahajan, controversies over telecom tariffs have begun to torment Arun Shourie.

The BJP top brass has asked the communications minister to examine charges that one private telecom service provider was being favoured at the cost of others, particularly state-owned companies like Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL) and Mahanagar Sanchar Nigam (MTNL).

Shourie came under attack in the Lok Sabha today from BJP allies. The BJP leadership feels that the telecom tariff regime is being viewed as designed to favour Reliance Telecom.

BSNL and MTNL have cut the number of free calls allowed to fixed-line customers and increased the cost of ringing up mobile phones from fixed phones.

Opponents of this pricing allege that the costs have been raised deliberately to encourage people to shift to the limited mobile, or WiLL, service Reliance is providing.

Similar charges had been levelled against Mahajan.

A seemingly innocuous question during question hour triggered a succession of unusual scenes in the Lok Sabha, culminating in a walkout by the Shiv Sena, the Samata Party and the Janata Dal (United) — all constituents of the ruling NDA.

A Congress backbencher had asked Shourie whether some limited mobile service operators were forcing the Centre to increase BSNL rentals and call charges.

Instantly, several CPM members from Kerala were on their toes with more pointed questions. Suresh Kurup asked Shourie why BSNL had hiked call charges (landline to mobile), increased rentals and reduced the number of free calls. He accused the government of succumbing to pressure from private telecom service providers. Shourie’s reply that these were mere allegations did not help him at all.

For the next half-an-hour, the role of Opposition was taken over by the Sena, Samata, JD (U) and the DMK, with help from supporting parties like the Telugu Desam and the BSP. Their members were not ready to accept Shourie’s “selective” defence that his ministry had neither increased rentals, nor call charges in BSNL and MTNL.

Shourie’s attempts to sidestep the reduction in the number of free calls and steep increase in the charges for calls from fixed lines to WiLL and mobile lines further incensed the angry members. Samata member Raghunath Jha went on to accuse the government of succumbing to pressure from Reliance.

The Sena House leader accused the government of working towards the eventual objective of selling BSNL and MTNL.

BSP floor leader Rashid Alvi questioned the rationale of giving Reliance permission to operate WiLL and mobile services all over the country.

By this time, even some senior BJP members, particularly from Delhi, began to express anger at Shourie’s response. Despondency was writ large on the faces of Madan Lal Khurana, Sahib Singh Verma and V.K. Malhotra.

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