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Politics to drive India's economy

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Last updated on: May 17, 2004 19:27 IST

Nothing epitomises the raging battle over India's economic policy direction than the visages of two Sikh stalwarts.

Manmohan Singh, hailed as the father of India's economic reforms, which he initiated in 1991, insisting that reforms and divestment will continue, and Harkishan Singh Surjeet, supremo of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the largest Left Front party and without whose support, the Congress cannot form the next government, simply wants divestment scrapped and reforms slowed down if not rolled back.

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Even before the dust has settled on the elections, the Left Front took media centrestage with a series of statements against the previous government's divestment policies, all of which sent the stock markets into shock and share prices tumbled.

On the now infamous 'Bloody Monday' the Sensex crashed to an intra-day low of 4227, a loss of almost 800 points, the highest fall in the bourse's 130-year old history. Trading had to be halted twice to step the downfall.

The Congress party forced to play a fire-fighting role, tried to pacify the markets by reiterating about their commitment to reforms.

The market, which saw the erosion of almost Rs 300,000 crore in market capitalisation in just two days, finally gained considerable lost ground on Manmohan Singh's announcement of tough action against any possible market manipulators. The 30-share BSE Sensex finally settled with a loss of whopping 564 points at 4505, second only to the April 28, 1992 crash when the Sensex had tanked 570 points after the Harshad Mehta scam.

Manmohan Singh, clearly the tallest leader in the party and Sonia Gandhi's key advisor, had on Saturday issued a statement that insisting that divestment would continue, but in a judicious manner. The Congress has said it will not divest profit-making public sector firms, which means that the anticipated divestment of the oil sector companies is clearly off.

The present tug of war between the Congress and the Left portrays their different priorities. The Congress priority right now is to form the government, which it cannot do without Left Front support. For the Left Front, the priority is correcting what it sees as wrongs in the current economic policies of the country before it is forced to compromise in forming the government.

But within the Congress, a faction is now pushing its leaders to take a hardline against what it perceives as the Leftists' blackmailing tactics. "There are many of us who flatly believe that the Left Front views must simply not be entertained, and we are pushing our leaders not to concede an inch to the Left Front come what may," revealed a Congress leader.

He further said that Manmohan Singh, has no intention of rolling back any of the liberal policies even as he speaks mildly on television. "He will not agree to their demands. When it comes to reforms, Dr Singh is extremely committed," he added.

The leader pointed out that while the Congress needs the Left Front, the latter too needs the former. H S Surjeet has reiterated time and again that the first priority is getting the 'communal NDA' out of power. With both needing the other, it might clearly be a case of who blinks first.

The Leftists too are aware that once the new government is formed and a Common Minimum Programme drafted, it might not be able to do much and is therefore pushing its agenda for economic changes as hard as possible. It is hoping to get the opposite side to compromise more than they have to and hence the series of statements to the media about shutting down the divestment ministry.

Incidentally, the CPI-M is apparently veering to the decision not to join the government, something that might in the coming days aggravate the economic conflicts between the Left and the Congress.

A Congress leader pointed out that reforms were inevitable. "We are committed to providing one crore jobs. To do that, we need to divest government shares from our public sector companies and use the funds to expand and create more jobs? How else will we raise funds?" he asked.

Given its electoral promises, the Congress too is hardening its stand vis-à-vis the Leftists, saying they are simply asking for too much. And a section within the Congress is urging its top leaders to give back to the Left as good as they get.

Either way, it is clear that politics will drive the nation's economy in the coming days. And it is going to be a tightrope walk considering that the Congress has already asked its allies to exercise restraint in what they say.
Amberish K Diwanji