The headlines said it all. The Economic Times read: Mamata launches Bengal poll campaign; the Financial Express said: Mamata pulls the chain on railways. Every other newspaper was equally critical about the minister who for the second successive year skewed the Railway Budget in order to earn brownie points in her home state, with the sole objective of winning the West Bengal election.
Consequently, the Railways are pushed further on the path of destruction with the minister refusing to hike passenger fares or cut the huge wage bill, which gobbles up half its revenue. Yet, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee is one of our most honest politicians and for that reason alone gets away with demands and tantrums, which are economically detrimental to the nation.
But who cares about the nation? Policy is dictated by the self-interest or political interests of individual politicians. For three days in a row, parliamentary proceedings were hijacked by Opposition MPs who alleged that a transparent bid to sell a 51 per cent stake in the government-owned Bharat Aluminium Company Ltd stank of graft.
The divestment of public sector undertakings has always brought out the most reprehensible and illogical arguments from politicians, irrespective of the politics they pursue. In the last five years, every political party -- tiny and regional, large and national -- has been on both sides of the divestment debate. Sometimes they have been in a ruling coalition (or supporting it from outside) and sabotaging divestment or been in the Opposition and fought it by alleging graft and deals.
PSUs are the fiefs some politicians exploit -- there is money to be made on appointments, transfers, promotions, purchase orders; PSUs also pay for everything from cell phones, computers, extra cars, foreign trips and junkets within the country.
Naturally, no politician wants to lose control over PSUs. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition, which grasped political power after almost half a century in the Opposition, has acquired a taste for PSU goodies within two years.
The upshot? Those few companies whose privatisation programmes make it past bureaucratic blockages are stalled by the Opposition at the implementation stage.
Is there more to the political protests over divestment than meets the eye? A political lobbyist, who represents one of the national parties, candidly told me that much of his party's anti-reform rhetoric is merely aimed at cutting itself a deal with industrial houses. The weak coalition led by the BJP makes it ideal for the Opposition to strike such deals. That is why the most vociferous protests quietly fizzle out when it comes to the crunch.
This could explain why Balco attracts high voltage opposition while a more shocking plan to hand over Maruti Udyog to the Suzuki Motor Company without the Japanese company paying anything for a controlling stake is ignored. Even the decision to sell Maruti shares to financial institutions at a whopping Rs 4,000 each meets with silence. It is all a question of 'managing' the opposition.
Contrast this with Balco. Ajit Jogi, chief minister of Chhattisgarh and a former bureaucrat, is willing to jeopardise the interests of his newly formed state by canceling Balco's mining leases if the company is sold to Sterlite Industries. Jogi knows his political future depends on pleasing his party leader Sonia Gandhi, and not the people of Chhattisgarh.
Other Opposition parties are more opportunistic. They want a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe a deal which is in line with the recommendations of a highly regarded Divestment Commission headed by G V Ramakrishna. Our past experience with JPCs is that they are a waste of taxpayers's money.
Not surprisingly, our elected representatives are seldom agitated with successive governments running PSUs into the ground through neglect and exploitation. Why are MPs never agitated at the huge losses made by the two airline companies or the manner in which steel monolith SAIL has been reduced to a pathetic loss maker? That is because the privatisation process offers opportunities for deal making.
Indeed, it is more interesting these days to identify issues which fail to agitate our honourable MPs. For instance, Enron's frequent threat to invoke the ill-considered sovereign guarantee for the Dabhol Power Company's electricity supply to Maharashtra is a good example. The bankrupt Maharashtra government, which is unable to pay Enron, has threatened to dump the project onto the Centre, making the nation pay for a bad deal signed by an individual state.
Only the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which has maintained the strangest silence about Enron, is finally threatening to hold a dharna before Parliament on March 22.
There is more. The latest issue of Outlook magazine (March 5, 2001) carries an explosive cover story titled 'Rigging the PMO.' It alleges that industry houses such as Reliance, Essar and the Hindujas brazenly manipulate the Prime Minister's Office into 'forcing economic decisions on key ministries' and are 'making a mockery of the reform process.'
The article includes an extremely forthright interview with E A S Sarma, who resigned as revenue secretary when he was transferred for the umpteenth time (in the Indian context the fact that he was transferred 22 times in his 35-year career is a shining testimony to his honesty and integrity). The article alleges that two bureaucrats attached to the PMO (Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra and Officer on Special Duty N K Singh) manipulated several decision to favour Reliance and the Hindujas and specifies the deals. A charge that is feebly denied by the government.
The report was clearly timed for Parliament's Budget session. But there is no reaction in Parliament. Our MPs were busy disrupting the House with the 'perceived' scam in the Balco deal.
A cynical industrialist had the pulse on the situation. Laughing at me for my naivete, he asked, "Tell me, who will make a noise about the story? Certainly not the BJP and its allies. The Left parties used to matter, but they have become inconsequential for several years now. Even the Telugu Desam, whose MPs have been demanding a JPC on Balco, has a soft corner for Reliance. As for the Hindujas the Bofors saga is testimony that no political party really wants them in trouble."
Depressing, isn't it? This is the one time I'd love to be told I am wrong.