The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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BJP piles poll pressure on Arun

New Delhi, May 8: Arun Shourie is under pressure from the BJP to reconsider his position on telecom tariffs and divestment.

The leadership is believed to have told him to review the increased charges announced by the government-owned telecom companies, Bharat Sanchar Nigam (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telecom Nigam (MTNL), as well as go slow on selling Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum. Shourie holds communications, divestment and infotech portfolios.

This is not the first time he has had a difference of opinion with a section of the party leadership over divestment. On an earlier occasion, the dispute had led to a showdown where the Prime Minister stepped in to throw his weight behind Shourie.

The context, BJP sources pointed out, is different this time because of the coming elections in four states later in the year. Shourie’s opponents feel that the higher phone rates and divestment of government stake from the two petroleum companies are unpopular steps that will affect the party’s prospects in the polls.

Whether Shourie’s detractors get their way will be known when Atal Bihari Vajpayee conducts the expected shuffle of his ministry next week. There have already been suggestions that ministers with dual portfolios will be stripped of one. Shourie has three and could become a victim if the criterion is applied.

Despite being asked not to try and sell big-ticket companies like the two petroleum giants, the minister has continued the process of divestment in both. He has already invited expressions of interest in Hindustan Petroleum from strategic bidders. Sources say the interested parties include Royal Dutch, Reliance and TotalFina.

“People feel there is something fishy in the way we are trying to push forward the sale of profit-making public sector units,” BJP leaders said.

Also the fact that one company’s name, Reliance, keeps cropping up in allegations — whether it is divestment or telecom tariff revision — being aired by Shourie’s critics is seen as politically “troublesome”.

Shourie’s backers say that Reliance is a big player in both telecom and petroleum and would naturally figure in any exercise related to the two industries. Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani is believed to have lent his weight in favour of reviewing telecom tariffs and keeping divestment on hold till the polls are over.

The party has become extremely sensitive about its public image because of controversies over several economic decisions, such as value-added tax, where finance minister Jaswant Singh has had to backtrack against his own wishes.

BJP members of a parliamentary standing committee today unanimously asked Shourie not to sell the petroleum companies, saying “divestment (from the two) is not in the interest of the economy”.

The committee also said that before divesting, Shourie should take formal permission from Parliament. It reopens the debate whether the government can sell nationalised companies without first de-nationalising them through Acts of Parliament.

The Opposition used the fact that BJP members of the committee had supported this stand to torment Shourie today in Parliament.

Telecom tariffs had been similarly attacked by BJP allies yesterday with the suggestion that BSNL and MTNL had made the revision with the covert motive of helping Reliance, which has received clearance for low rates from the telecom regulator, for its limited mobility service, or WiLL.

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