2005-05-15 10:10:05 UTC
Civil aviation minister strikes discordant notes within the UPA
Arati R. Jerath
Trouble is brewing for the Manmohan Singh government with the Left, secretly
backed by a section of the Congress, gunning for the Union civil aviation
minister Praful Patel and his aviation policy. What's set the cat among the
pigeons is the recently released report of the Parliamentary Standing
Committee on transport. In words unusually blunt for a parliamentary
committee, the report has slammed Patel's ministry for its cowboy approach
to the critical question of restructuring and modernising the aviation
sector for global integration worthy of the economic superpower India
aspires to be.
Through the committee's chairman, CPI(M) Rajya Sabha MP Nilotpal Basu, the
Left has carefully drawn the battle lines on key aspects of Patel's aviation
policy. The significance of the report, however, lies in the fact that it
has the approval of all its members who cut across party lines and include
leading lights of the Congress, like Sonia Gandhi loyalist Ambika Soni.
Soni was cautious enough to clarify that the report was not an indictment of
government policy per se. But she conceded that there are concerns and
issues that need to be addressed properly. "Our aim was to emphasise the
need for transparency in the decision-making process. We have highlighted
areas where we feel that there should have been more transparency and we
hope the government will take note of our concerns," she told BW.
Left sources say the battle has just begun. They admit Patel finessed them
on the open skies policy (under which Jet Airways and Air Sahara will now
fly to the UK and US), but they fiercely maintain that they will not allow
him to get away with it. Nor, they insist, will they allow him to press
ahead with his plans to privatise the Delhi and Mumbai airports, at least
not in the manner he's going about it.
Patel, on the other hand, seems quite sanguine about the bombs ticking away
under him. He's proved to be not only a shrewd businessman but an astute
politician as well. Realising the sensitivity of heading a ministry that
involves big money, he's taken shelter behind the Prime Minister's Office
for every decision he's taken. Whether it was pushing open skies through the
Union Cabinet or getting an oversight committee appointed to vet the
purchase of new planes for Indian Airlines and Air-India, or having an
empowered group of ministers headed by none other than Union defence
minister Pranab Mukherjee approve his plans for privatising airports, Patel
has tried to work through government systems so that he alone can't be made
to take the rap for controversial decisions.
And that's where the rub lies. The Left realises the political implications
of taking on Patel. It means dragging in the PMO and the rest of the
government. Consequently, it is treading with caution. As a CPI MP who did
not wish to be identified disclosed: "We are already fighting the government
on three issues: insurance, banking and pension fund. We have to see how to
bring in a fourth one without jeopardising our stand on the other three. We
will take a decision very soon."
As the war of nerves builds up, the Left has decided to tap the Congress for
support. For the past several months, it has been lobbying quietly with key
Congress leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, against Patel's aviation policy.
While the Congress has not officially taken a stand as yet, a section of the
party seems to have been activated, putting Patel under pressure.
The battle now threatens to move from the back room to the public domain.
The standing committee report was the first salvo and there is no doubt that
it has set tongues wagging. The next was a seven-page letter to the Prime
Minister echoing much of what is contained in the standing committee report.
The letter was written by Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Dinesh Trivedi,
but it also bore the signature of Congress Rajya Sabha MP V. Narayanswamy.
Political circles are buzzing with speculation about the reasons for the
friction that seems to have sprung up between Patel and the Congress. The
issue appears to be the Airbus and Boeing deals for purchase of aircraft
worth several thousand crores of rupees. The proposed purchases caused such
splinters in the preceding A.B. Vajpayee government that it could never
muster the courage to go through with them.
What's interesting with the UPA regime is that Patel set the process in
motion almost as soon as he assumed office, but one year later the deals are
yet to be finalised, although they have moved some distance through the
bureaucracy. Indian Airlines, for instance, completed its formalities by the
beginning of March this year. The civil aviation ministry prepared the
required Cabinet note by the end of March. Yet, for some inexplicable
reason, it has still not been put up to the Union Cabinet for approval. In
fact, Patel has taken to what can only be interpreted as delaying tactics.
He first sent the proposal to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) for
approval, then to five other ministries for their comments. Actually, none
of this was necessary and the CVC hinted as much to Patel with a reply
saying it had no comments to offer at that stage.
Political circles suspect that Patel has been forced to play dilatory games
because he hasn't got the green signal to complete the final stage of the
purchase, that is, getting Cabinet approval so that Indian Airlines can
place the order. They attribute this to differences between the Congress and
the NCP (to which Patel belongs) over the megabuck deal.
The Left, however, is on a completely different track. Its quarrel with
Patel is mainly on two principled points. One is the open skies policy and
the second is the proposed privatisation of airports in Mumbai and Delhi.
Both these decisions were severely criticised by the standing committee.
In fact, the report bluntly accuses the civil aviation ministry of plotting
to benefit Jet with the open skies policy at the cost of Indian Airlines and
Air-India. The report doesn't name Jet, but it makes the reference amply
clear. It raises suspicions about the timing of the decision, saying it was
too close to Jet's initial public offer to be a coincidence. It slams the
ministry for timing the decision so that Jet got a good opening for its
equity offering. The committee has also demanded an inquiry by an
independent agency, (read: CBI), into the manner in which the decision was
On the privatisation issue, the standing committee has demanded that the
government review the decision to hand over the airports at Mumbai and Delhi
to private consortiums. It points out that these are the two biggest
revenue-earners for the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and its profits
are used to sustain the 80-odd loss-making airports that are kept alive to
ensure national connectivity for underdeveloped areas like the North-east.
It has recommended that the airports stay with the government and an
alternative modernisation plan submitted by the AAI Employees Joint Forum be
All eyes are now on UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. So far, she has refused to
intervene in government functioning and policy decisions, unless they
concern the social sectors. However, if pressure continues to build, she may
have no option but to step in, particularly if aviation policy becomes
political football within the UPA.