Virendra Kapoor

After deciding to sell off the domestic carrier, Indian Airlines, the ministry of divestment is now engaged in a serious exercise to prioritise the sale of other loss-making public undertakings.

High on its list is the Steel Authority of India.

The decision to hive off loss-making steel plants run by SAIL will be announced soon. In recent years, only partly due to the general downturn in the economy, the public sector major has been in the dumps. Despite the demand for steel picking up in recent months, SAIL continues to be in the red. It is expected to end this financial year with a loss of Rs 20 billion.

Mind you, this is over and above the accumulated losses of nearly Rs 100 billion in the last couple of years.

The SAIL scrip, once a top performer among public sector companies, has thus been languishing at far below par. Official sources fear strong opposition from entrenched trade unions to the proposed privatisation. That may explain why they are chary of calling it privatisation, preferring instead to term it, euphemistically, 'restructuring'.

But given Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's resolve to press ahead with second generation reforms and take the government out of as many unproductive areas as possible -- and quickly --- the privatisation of SAIL isn't too far off.

Act in haste, regret at leisure

'Think before you leap' is an adage which the Vajpayee government keeps forgetting.

The case in point is the announcement that former President Ramaswamy Venkataraman would head the proposed Constitution review panel. The prime minister had spoken to Venkataraman and obtained his consent.

Little did the PM's advisers realise that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK boss Muthuvel Karunanidhi would veto RV's appointment. The moment Karunanidhi learnt about it, he had it conveyed to the prime minister that the former Rashtrapati was not acceptable to him.

Promptly, RV's name was dropped for the high-profile assignment. Though the DMK's anti-brahaminism is well-known, the party has been at odds in particular with the former President. Some years ago a DMK official filed a PIL against RV following the latter's retirement when he sought a government bungalow in Madras.

The reason cited was that not only did RV own a bungalow in the city, but he had his tenant legally evicted on the ground that he required it for his use. After the eviction, RV's home was spruced up at government cost and a couple of rooms to serve as an office-cum-security complex added. After the government had spent nearly Rs 1.5 million on it, RV changed his mind and demanded an official bungalow for him to live in. All this was part of the PIL.

A few months later, RV shifted to Delhi. He now lives in an official bungalow on Safdarjung Road.

Defying authority, diplomatic way

The orders for ambassador-level postings issued in October 1999 are yet to be implemented. And thereby hangs a tale.

To start from the beginning, among the proposed 14-odd transfers and postings in missions abroad, Indian High Commissioner in Dacca Deb Mukherjee was to replace our ambassador in Kathmandu, K V Rajan. The latter in turn was transferred to Canada in place of our high commissioner there, Rajnikant Verma.

Mukherjee in Dacca was to be replaced by the Indian high commissioner in Mauritius, M L Tripathi. Verma was asked to return to the headquarters in New Delhi.

Once the orders were issued, the diplomats concerned began lobbying with their superiors in the South Block, which houses the offices of both the prime minister and Minister for External Affairs Jaswant Singh.

The man in Ottawa said he would not like to head the newly-established Indian Foreign Service training institute; if you offer full secretary-ship in the MEA, maybe he could head back home. Since the MEA was not ready to make him a full secretary, he stays put in Ottawa.

As for our man in Kathmandu, he reportedly argued, "Look, I have done only about two years here. I have a year or so before I am due to retire. Please don't disturb me."

So the MEA said "OK, your wish is granted."

However, the MEA was fortunate in the case of its man in Dacca. He was ready to move wherever ordered. But in view of the disruption in the original plans, they had to re-arrange the personnel all over again.

Now the man in Dacca might go to Tokyo in place of the present incumbent, Siddarth Singh, who would be re-located at the headquarters, while Tripathi would move from Port Louis to replace Mukherjee.

This was the situation at the time of writing. Given the extraneous pulls and pressures, further changes cannot however be ruled out.

Goody-goody Jaitley

The Sangh Parivar has a grievance: Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Arun Jaitley does not seem to assert himself enough.

The Parivar believes that Jaitley's predecessor, Pramod Mahajan, whatever his other failings, could at least ensure that his writ ran in the ministry, including in the supposedly autonomous Prasar Bharati.

While Mahajan ordered everyone around, often through his personal aides, Jaitley is seen as soft and conciliatory. This is why the babus in AIR and Doordarshan pay scant respect to the wishes of various government departments and ministries, claim Sangh Parivar members.

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