PSU disinvestment

End of debates

Print edition : October 31, 2014

At the Congress' "Chintan Shivir" in Jaipur on January 22, 2013. The party allowed debates on disinvestment. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Vayalar Ravi, an important voice in the debates on the issue of disinvestment. Photo: BLOOMBERG NEWS

The silence of the Sangh Parivar outfits and NDA constituents on the issue of PSU disinvestment is deafening.

“WHEN it comes to the question of disinvestment of public sector units [PSUs] and related economic policy issues, all Union governments that have been in power since the early 1990s have witnessed a clash of ideologies and perceptions within in varying degrees and differing emphases. But the present Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party-National Democratic Alliance [BJP-NDA] government is different from the rest on account of the conspicuous absence of debates or intellectual tussles on the issue. Right from the moment it came to power [in May] there was little doubt that the Modi government would disinvest PSUs without anybody raising any questions. There is an abject surrender of differing voices on the issue both within the BJP and in the other constituents of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh [RSS]-led Sangh Parivar.” This was the response of former Union Minister and senior Congress leader Vayalar Ravi when Frontline asked him about the political manoeuvres relating to disinvestment.

Vayalar Ravi, who prefers to call himself a trade union leader first, has been an important voice in the debates on the issue whenever a government with Congress participation or support has ruled the Centre since the 1990s. The south Indian leader has consistently taken up the cause of preserving the PSUs, especially the profit-making companies, in the larger national interest. However, he also admitted that the experience of the past two decades had been such that the voices in favour of the public sector were getting increasingly marginalised in the two major parties, the BJP and the Congress. “RSS stalwarts such as Dattopant Thengadi and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh [BMS] leaders such as Hasmukh Bhai Dave made bold to criticise disinvestment moves during the NDA government [1998-2004] led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But those voices have got completely suppressed now. I can say from my own experience that the balance of ideological power in politics has tilted to the side of corporate interests. I am seeing this even in the Congress despite top leaders such as Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi repeatedly emphasising the importance of public sector initiatives to strengthen social justice and empowerment of weaker sections of society.”

The responses from the Sangh Parivar as well as the NDA constituents to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s announcement that the government planned to raise over Rs.58,000 crore by disinvesting PSUs, including Coal India Ltd (CIL), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), Power Finance Corporation (PFC), Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Steel Authority of India (SAIL), clearly point to the marginalisation of dissenting voices referred to by Vayalar Ravi. The last major statement of the BMS, the trade union wing of the BJP, on disinvestment is dated September 2013. This statement, on its website, refers in some detail to the plans of then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) headed by Manmohan Singh. It does not list any recent statement of the organisation after Jaitley’s announcement.

Several observers of the PSU-related developments, including Sangh Parivar insiders and the BJP’s NDA partners, pointed out to Frontline that this kind of strategic silence was a regular feature of the otherwise vociferous organisations in the Swadeshi-Hindutva fold whenever the BJP was in power. For instance, in 2001, Thengadi and Dave turned silent after some aggressive posturing on the disinvestment issue. In fact, the Vajpayee government set up a special Ministry of Disinvestment in September 2001 even as the Sangh Parivar outfits adopted a strategy of silence. However, the BMS started demanding the scrapping of the Ministry in 2005, when the UPA was in power.

Change in stance

Interestingly, the BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections makes no mention of disinvestment of PSUs. On the contrary, there is a sentence in the 52-page document which says: “We have to strengthen the public sector for providing efficient services to our citizens.” Of course, that is the only reference to PSUs. However, the manifesto mentions that the BJP would set up of a new public sector enterprise called “organic farming and fertilizer corporation of India”. A BMS leader told Frontline on condition of anonymity that the general perception within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar until early 2014 was that Modi would not “carry out big-ticket asset sales of PSUs because he had maintained in many internal forums that the public sector could be turned around and made efficient with correct leadership”. “In fact, leaders such as Arun Shourie [who was Disinvestment Minister in the Vajpayee government] had made statements highlighting this position of Modi. However, after the way Modi’s election campaign gathered momentum between January and April with a clear pro-corporate overdrive, we had no doubts that the approach would not be the one stated earlier. We knew that big-ticket assets sales were on,” the BMS leader said.

As things stand now, these sections of the Sangh Parivar have no clue as to how they should advance their points and make a difference in the Modi regime. “The Sangh Parivar organisations, including the RSS, are planning a series of Chintan Baithaks [introspection sessions] where several ideological and political issues are expected to come up. These meetings are expected to be held over the next two months. Hopefully, there would be a more representative plan by the time the next budget is prepared,” the leader said.

Internal debates

The previous governments had witnessed internal debates of varying intensity on the issue whatever the net result and the final direction. The P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government had pushed the neoliberal agenda with Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister, but leaders such as Vayalar Ravi and Rajesh Pilot had fought strongly against it and lost the battles. Following the party’s defeats at the elections in 1996 and 1998, these objections came up in the form of thematic papers presented by Vayalar Ravi and Pilot at the “Pachmarhi Shivir” held by the Congress in 1998. This exercise was the first of its kind to be held under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi.

In continuation of these debates, the Congress opposed the Vajpayee government’s disinvestment plans describing them as an attempt to “sell the family silver”. However, in a volte-face in subsequent years, the UPA perceived “selling the family silver” as an important instrument to raise resources for the development of the larger economy. Vayalar Ravi said although the overall mood of the government between 2004 and 2014 was in favour of PSU disinvestment, debates did take place within. Vayalar Ravi is of the view that the intervention of the Congress president had strengthened this debate and restrained, to a large extent, the efforts to run away with PSU disinvestment. He told Frontline that the advocates of aggressive PSU disinvestment wanted to scrap several flagship programmes of the UPA government, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Indira Awas Yojana, which was designed to provide dwelling for poor people, and the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojana, which sought to expand rural electrification. “But the Congress president stood her ground,” Vayalar Ravi said.

Similarly, the BMS did have a strong voice during the Vajpayee regime. At the 2001 Indian Labour Conference, Dave stated that the BJP government was pushing the very policies of the Congress on disinvestment and that closure of industries and unemployment were staring the people in the face. Thengadi went one step further and stated that the policies pursued by Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha were criminal in nature. But as Jaitley moves ahead with his style of disinvestment, there is deafening silence among the Sangh Parivar outfits. Indeed, this marks a qualitative change in the political process associated with the corporate-oriented policy initiatives of the past 23 years.