The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Left bares teeth on Bhel

New Delhi, June 26: The Manmohan Singh government received its first big jolt today with its Left ally deciding to stay away from the committee formed with leaders of the two sides in protest against the divestment of state-owned Bhel.

In a letter to Sonia Gandhi, the panel’s chairperson, Left leaders said: “In the light of this (divestment), we find no useful purpose will be served by attending the coordination committee meetings. We have, therefore, regretfully decided to suspend our participation in the committee.”

The word used is “suspend” and not “quit”, which means the Left is leaving the way open for a return, though the decision to not attend meetings itself is enough of a blow to the government.

“We never said that it is non-negotiable,” said CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan at a joint news conference.

The Congress was hoping so. “Nothing is beyond resolution. It can be resolved and it will be resolved,” said spokesperson Ambika Soni.

Still, the fact is that the Prime Minister, who was sent a copy of the letter, has failed to convince the Left over several sessions ' he met former CPM general secretary H.S. Surjeet last night and spoke to his successor Prakash Karat today ' of the Centre’s reasons for selling 10 per cent of its equity in Bhel in the market.

Karat said: “This is the first serious violation of the common minimum programme (CMP, the cornerstone of the alliance).”

They did not explain why it’s a violation of the CMP, which commits the government to not privatising the so-called public sector navaratnas, of which Bhel is one, but does not bar divestment.

The Prime Minister had earlier met Left leaders to explain that the government did not intend to privatise but only divest a part of its Bhel shares.

Even after a 10 per cent divestment, the government would hold 57 per cent of Bhel, giving it majority control.

But the Left believes that the government is resorting to “creeping divestment and privatisation” by selling off assets of profit-making public sector units.

The letter sent after a meeting of Left leaders said: “Our experience has been that the government has gone ahead with many decisions despite our disagreement.”

One such was the decision to raise petrol and diesel prices.

“What has perturbed us most is the manner in which the government has gone ahead with the Bhel divestment which is to be followed by other navaratnas and PSUs,” the Left said.

It attributed the decision to the finance minister setting a “target of realising Rs 10,000 crore in the 2005-06 budget (from divestment)”.

The Left argued that “navaratnas like Bhel can go to the market to raise the capital they require. It is not for the government to sell their shares and appropriate the proceeds”.

“It is merely a mechanism to facilitate the government’s appropriation of the proceeds,” the letter said of the government proposal to set up a national investment fund with money raised from divestment.

The Congress said: “Naturally, as you go along there are issues that will come up but they can be resolved through consultations, interactions and discussions.”

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