CONGRESS SELLOFF POSERS RATTLE GOVT 

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By FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 10.08.00
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New Delhi, Aug 10 :     Not often is the reform-warrior Congress known for giving the Swadeshi protagonists a run for their money. But, in a near volte-face on its stated position, Congress thought-leader Mani Shankar Aiyar today put the BJP-led government on the mat with posers in a manner that conjured up memories of Jethmalani's queries that caused the Congress embarrassment, and much more, in the Bofors gun deal. Aiyar asked the government 13 uncomfortable questions on its disinvestment policy, or as he called, the absence of one. "Which PSU sectors are essential? How does the government decide which PSUs should be run by new owners and which by the government? why are profit-making PSUs being sold off?" he thundered to the chagrin of the treasury benches. The questions left the two Aruns squirming. While Jaitley was the minister for dinsinvestment before, Shourie is now in the hot seat. Even BJP hard-liners who have Swadeshi sympathies smirked at their government's discomfort. Not that the Congress' is united on its 'left turn'. It is in the throes of a debate on the direction in which the reforms that it started in 1991 should proceed. Public sector disinvestment, and the state's role in the economy, lies at the core of it. However, MPs like former finance minister Manmohan Singh do not support what the party calls the 'new realistic thinking'. There are no cracks in the facade, though. The party put up a united show today. Congress MPs in the Lok Sabha, including leader Sonia Gandhi, turned up in strength to attend the debate and endorse the new pro-Swadeshi, anti-divestment stance. Aiyar, the Congress' pointman who was told to rip the selloff strategy into shreds had done his homework: He compiled and carried to the House literature culled from Sangh Parivar's theology on the virtues of the public sector. "We have always maintained - even when we were liberalising - that public sector shares should be divested to the Indians. This can include small investors, mutual funds and financial institutions, not multinationals and their collaborators here," Aiyar said. " In addition, the money should be used to strengthen the public sector, not to bridge the fiscal deficit." "Our idea of disinvestment was only to revive capital market, whereas for the BJP-led coalition, the process is central to reform initiatives. It is like giving away all PSU profits in the form of a 'dowry gift'," he said in remarks that showed just how far the Congress had moved on liberalisation. Aiyar demanded the government publish a white paper spelling out its policy on divestment while accusing it of being evasive in Parliament on its policy of PSU disinvestment. "Does the government differentiate between profit-making PSUs and loss making ones while selling its stake? What does it mean by a core sector PSU?," Aiyar asked the government. Targeting Shourie's statements that PSUs were inherently inefficient, Aiyar pointed out that these companies had, as a combined entity, given the government a 9 per cent return on net worth in the last financial year at a time when the country's top companies were struggling with poor numbers. Aiyar rattled the government with numbers on the comparative profitability of the private and public sectors: "ITC had a mere 5.8 per cent return on its net worth, ACC 4.6 per cent, Spic 2.5 per cent while Hind Motors had negative return of 11.55 per cent. And though SAIL had a negative return, it was half of Essar's figure of - 43.5 per cent," Aiyar said. For once, the Left was nodding like never before. Basudeb Acharya, the CPM MP who had initiated the debate, was seen beaming at every point that Aiyar hammered home.