TELE­COM RE­FORMS

India Today - - THE LEGACY OF VAJPAYEE - By Arun Shourie

or dis­in­vest­ment, Va­j­payee stood firm. He be­lieved that In­dia needed a new way of do­ing things and backed his min­is­ters to do the right thing. He also taught In­dia to think on a dif­fer­ent scale, be it with projects like the Golden Quadri­lat­eral or with the nu­clear tests

The tele­com revo­lu­tion, in open­ing up the sec­tor and cor­po­ratis­ing BSNL (which forced pri­vate play­ers to slash call rates), fun­da­men­tally changed the way In­di­ans com­mu­ni­cated. At the heart of this revo­lu­tion was Prime Min­is­ter A.B. Va­j­payee’s be­lief that In­dia needed a new way of do­ing things. When we de­cided to lib­er­alise the tele­com li­cence regime, many min­is­ters were op­posed to it. Some coali­tion part­ners too op­posed it for their own rea­sons. But Va­j­payee stood firm. Our ob­jec­tive was to abol­ish li­cens­ing and bring in com­pe­ti­tion. And we used BSNL and MTNL to beat the pri­vate op­er­a­tors into low­er­ing prices. What was over Rs 14 a minute for an in­com­ing call came down to a few paise per minute af­ter we went ahead with the re­forms.

This wasn’t the only time Va­j­payee had to fight against his own par­ty­men. The RSS threat­ened him once, say­ing 60 party MPs would vote against the gov­ern­ment if it went ahead with amend­ments to the Patents Act. In­dia was new in the WTO and amend­ments to the act were in ac­cor­dance with rules. For some rea­son, the RSS and sarsanghch­a­lak K.S. Su­dar­shan had been mis­led on the is­sue. Dr R.A. Mashelkar was also there as an ad­vi­sor to the in­dus­tries min­is­ter and I told Atalji, “Mashelkar aur main jaate hain, Su­dar­shanji se baat kar lenge (Mr Mashelkar and I will go and speak with Mr Su­dar­shan).” He said, “Inka bhi time zaya kar rahe ho aur apna bhi... arre woh toh sarv­gyani hain (You are wast­ing his time and yours... Su­dar­shan knows it all).” He asked Pramod [Ma­ha­jan] when the bill was com­ing up, and when told it was due the next week, de­clared, “Nahin, isi hafte lao, dekhte hain kaun 60 MPs against vote karte hain (No, bring it this week. Let’s see which 60 MPs vote against it).” The bill, of course, was passed.

Sim­i­larly, on the dis­in­vest­ment of Balco, the gov­ern­ment came un­der con­sid­er­able at­tack. Even the em­ploy­ees sub­mit­ted a mem­o­ran­dum to the prime min­is­ter al­leg­ing im­proper val­u­a­tion and lapses in the ten­der­ing process. So much non­sense was spread by both the Congress and the Com­mu­nists. They even went on a hunger strike, say­ing they would force a vote. Atalji said, “Yes, let us force a vote. If the gov­ern­ment falls, let it fall.” So the Lok Sabha had a vote on the is­sue. Later, ev­ery de­tail of the dis­in­vest­ment was up­held by the Supreme Court.

Some­times, the pres­sure was such that Atalji had to give in against his will. I re­mem­ber when we wanted to con­tinue the dis­in­vest­ment process in the pe­tro­leum sec­tor, lead­ers like Ram Naik and Ge­orge Fer­nan­des were dead against it. They wanted the process stopped, the pre­text be­ing the 2002 elec­tions in Gu­jarat. At the time, PSUs were like pri­vate em­pires of the min­is­ters in charge of them. There was a heated meet­ing on dis­in­vest­ment, and when they quoted the Gu­jarat elec­tions, Va­j­payee asked: “Cam­paign kitni der se chal raha hai Gu­jarat mein, kisi ne dis­in­vest­ment ka naam liya hai kya (The cam­paign has been go­ing on for a while. Has any­one men­tioned dis­in­vest­ment)?” Ev­ery­body had to agree that the is­sue had not been raised. But even­tu­ally Va­j­payee gave in and dropped the plan to dis­in­vest com­pa­nies in the pe­tro­leum sec­tor.

There were many other in­ci­dents where we al­most caught out min­is­ters who were op­pos­ing dis­in­vest­ment projects. For in­stance, in the Maruti case, the P.V. Narasimha Rao gov­ern­ment was will­ing to hand over man­age­ment con­trol to Suzuki with­out any con­sid­er­a­tion. I told them I would charge Rs 1,000 crore for it. But a se­nior min­is­ter, on the or­ders of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thack­eray, op­posed it tooth and nail. How­ever, we found out why he was op­pos­ing it and Va­j­payee gave

me per­mis­sion to dis­close all the de­tails to the cab­i­net com­mit­tee on dis­in­vest­ment. I kept it as the last item on the agenda be­cause I knew the meet­ing would end af­ter I dis­closed the de­tails.

Va­j­payee em­pow­ered and trusted his min­is­te­rial col­leagues. In an­other in­stance, Re­liance In­dus­tries Ltd was in­volved in the dis­in­vest­ment of In­dian Petro­chem­i­cals Cor­po­ra­tion Lim­ited (IPCL). My friend S. Gu­ru­murthy said that Re­liance should be dis­qual­i­fied on grounds of na­tional se­cu­rity, but he could not make a case for it. I said we had to fol­low guide­lines. In the end, dis­in­vest­ment sec­re­tary Pradeep Bai­jal too in­sisted I take per­mis­sion from the prime min­is­ter on cer­tain pro­cesses. I said it went against my grain, it was our re­spon­si­bil­ity, why should we drag the PM into it? Still, I went to Va­j­payee and he asked me: “Kya baat hai?” I told him that since Re­liance was in­volved, there could be al­le­ga­tions that money had changed hands. Va­j­payee said, “Log toh ka­henge, tumhein jo karna hai tum karo (Peo­ple will say what they have to. You do what you have to).”

In an­other in­stance, I re­mem­ber Re­liance had to be fined as they were mis­us­ing the lim­ited mo­bil­ity clause. They had been given per­mis­sion to en­ter the mo­bile space, but with ‘lim­ited mo­bil­ity’. So now the ques­tion was, what should we do? I re­ferred the mat­ter to TRAI (Tele­com Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity of In­dia). They said we had to as­sume they were mis­us­ing the clause from day one and hence be charged the full mo­bil­ity rate from the day they got the li­cence, which came to Rs 2,100 crore. A heated ex­change en­sued in the cab­i­net, with some col­leagues say­ing Re­liance must be fined Rs 10,000 crore. I asked them on what ba­sis. Va­j­payee backed me and said what­ever our cal­cu­la­tion, we should go with it.

I would think he was a true re­former, he be­lieved in it like Narasimha Rao and gave me full sup­port. He had a set of core be­liefs. I will give you the ex­am­ple of Pak­istan—his be­lief was that we are the larger neigh­bour, so we have to keep reach­ing out. Va­j­payee was called the weak­est prime min­is­ter in his­tory by the RSS. But he shrugged off the crit­i­cism. The RSS wanted Bra­jesh Mishra out of the PMO be­cause they felt if Va­j­payee did not have that kind of sup­port in the sec­re­tar­iat, he would be more amenable to them. Many of the eco­nomic ideas that the RSS had were com­pletely an­te­dilu­vian. And Va­j­payee saw that. He would tell me, “Arre bhaiyya, woh bahut bhole hain (they are very naive). They have not gone into these is­sues.” Eco­nomic pol­icy was not their forte. The RSS had not worked out what kind of swadeshi they wanted. Va­j­payee was firm on con­tin­u­ing in the di­rec­tion of lib­er­al­i­sa­tion.

He also changed our vi­sion of scale. The Golden Quadri­lat­eral was not just roads be­ing built, but mak­ing In­dia think big­ger. We need not be con­fined to mu­nic­i­pal roads, we can think of na­tional high­ways. That was think­ing on a dif­fer­ent scale. This also goes for the nu­clear tests. Now we have the ca­pac­ity, so we will think in terms of a nu­clear weapon state, our strate­gic think­ing and so on. So scale was a very im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion of his. Va­j­payee man­aged the many com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships with his par­ty­men and al­lies with aplomb. What helped him was that he was not a threat­en­ing per­son, Atalji was large­hearted and of­ten de­fused ten­sion with hu­mour. He car­ried the bur­den of the ex­pec­ta­tions of his party, but more of­ten than not, chose his own path.

As told to Sh­weta Punj. Arun Shourie was min­is­ter of dis­in­vest­ment, tele­com and IT in the Va­j­payee years

“ARRE BHAIYYA, WOH (THE RSS) BAHUT

BHOLE HAIN. THEY’VE NOT GONE INTO THESE IS­SUES,” VA­J­PAYEE WOULD TELL ME

RAVEENDRAN/ GETTY IMAGES

Aug 20, 2003 Shourie with Va­j­payee at the launch of mo­bile tele­phone ser­vices for Kash­mir. The first call was from then J&K CM M.M. Say­eed in Sri­na­gar to the prime min­is­ter in Delhi

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