The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Left luggage looms on Manmohan

New Delhi, Sept. 26: Manmohan Singh may have tackled Pervez Musharraf with diplomatic finesse, but when he touches home ground tomorrow night, he will have to hone his political skills to face what may be a bigger test.

And that involves taking a stand on the Left's demand for the exit of foreign experts from the Planning Commission's consultative committees.

Observers believe the options may not be easy because the deputy chairperson of the plan panel, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, has emerged as the Prime Minister's key policy adviser. Comparisons are being drawn between Ahluwalia and Brajesh Mishra, who was Atal Bihari Vajpayee's principal secretary, national security adviser and more.

What Mishra was to the RSS-Swadeshi Jagran Manch, Ahluwalia is to the Left: a red rag. In both cases, the protagonists were perceived as excessively 'pro-US' for different reasons.

Vajpayee spent the better part of his time fending off the arrows shot by the RSS-Jagran Manch on Mishra but eventually stood his ground because sacking his principal secretary was tantamount to sacking himself.

Observers believe Singh's position is more 'vulnerable' because while the RSS and the manch were neither a part of the NDA government nor an outside supporter but merely had 'moral authority', the new regime is critically dependent on the Left's 63 MPs. While the indication from New York was the experts may be asked to leave, the last word is awaited.

The reported ambivalence within the Congress has complicated the issue. While no Congress member has publicly opposed Ahluwalia's move, it is believed that a left-of-centre group was critical of Singh going down in history as the first Prime Minister to address the New York Stock Exchange and openly woo US investors.

The political argument was since the Congress fought the elections on an anti-'India Shining' and a pro-poor plank, such overtures go contrary to the 'spirit of the mandate'.

But observers also believe that because Singh made infrastructure initiative the high water mark of his governance and entrusted Ahluwalia's team with the task of revamping regulatory systems in core sectors like roads, telecom, ports and power, he would find it difficult to 'undermine' Ahluwalia's authority in any manner.

The other economic issue, which Singh will have to sort out, is equally ticklish because it involves hiking the cap on foreign direct investment in telecom, civil aviation and insurance which the Left has opposed.

High on other domestic matters awaiting the Prime Minister's attention are Kashmir and the Northeast. Before Singh left for the US, he issued an order making special adviser M.K. Narayanan the overall in-charge of internal security with Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast being the thrust areas.

Government sources said the decision marked the first step to gradually move the two 'ultra-sensitive' states from the home ministry to the Prime Minister's Office as it was in the NDA's time.

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