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
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