Atal Bihari Vajpayee's approach to economic issues had the common touch

Two of the greatest economic legacies of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's mandate were his pursuit of privatization and the construction of highways.

The golden quadrangle project between Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai, followed by the North-South-East-West, became the culmination of the first NDA government. Vajpayee had stalwarts such as Nitish Kumar and Rajnath Singh as the Union's surface transport minister when the ministry had both highways and sea transport under it. Road building came into the mission position when little-known BC Khanduri, a retired army man from Uttrakhand who was close to Vajpayee, became a highway minister.

The length of national highways rose to 58,125 km in 2002-03 of 34,849 km in 1996 -97. The mega shadow came from the Rs 1 on petrol and diesel. Later on, rural roads were also financed from the road taxi, which meant that the infrastructure sector ushered in a golden age.

"There used to be no such concept of taking a single large infrastructure project, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was established as a tool to achieve that goal and the first edition of the NHAI was a fully competent body when the government realized that autonomy and empowerment were necessary for its functioning, "said former road secretary Vijay Chhibber.

It was a time when the Investment and Public Asset Management Department was a full-fledged ministry of divestments, first taken over by Arun Jaitley and then by Arun Shourie. It was at that time that the government privatized a number of state-owned companies, including major brands such as Maruti Suzuki (then known as Maruti Udyog), Modern Foods, Hindustan Zinc, Balco, Jessop and Co, IBP Co Ltd, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd, 18 hotel properties from ITDC, and others.

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"When I look at my 40 years of service, I do not think I have a period like this.The bureaucracy and political leadership were always on the same page. It was totally groundbreaking that he started privatization, which is not only a difficult process in India, but in every country, "said Pradip Baijal, who was a disinvestment secretary from December 1999 to February 2003, to Business Standard.

Baijal remembers Vajpayee as a prime minister who had the remarkable courage to approve almost all privatization proposals through his cabinet, to the great annoyance of the opposition, including left-wing parties, and employees of public units (PSU), in a country that was in general left-of-center.

"It showed remarkable courage that he approved everything we took on him, the left did not like it, PSU employees who did not have to play and who got bonuses did not like it, he set clear principles that we had to follow, and we did our work, "said Baijal, who stopped in 2006 as chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

Baijal remembered the work behind the two largest privatizations initiatives: Maruti Suzuki, in which it sold its interest to Suzuki Motors, and VSNL, which was sold to Tata Communications.

"Maruti & # 39; s was an impossible privatization.It was 50 percent under Suzuki.According to the agreement, we could not sell the rest of the ring to anyone other than Suzuki, but we created conditions that made those guys a very good one. We were able to do that because we had the full confidence of the Prime Minister, as it was with VSNL, we had two huge competitors, Tata and Reliance. "There was no complaint about the process," he said. .

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"The government had said that there would be no privatization without competitive bidding, and it is only when people deviate from an established process that there are problems – I remember discussions with Atalji, he never allowed anything Unless there was a level playing field and clear competition. "

Controversies about privatizing PSUs, however, led to the abandonment of strategic disinvestments as policy by the following governments. Nevertheless, the government of Vajpayee gave her India Shining moment.

"He (Vajpayee) has done a lot of work in the infrastructure sector because he believed that infrastructure development was a stimulus to the economy," said Kushal Kumar Singh, Partner, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India LLP.

The NHAI, an autonomous and independent body formed primarily to connect the country via roads and create employment, has now been transformed into a robust state-owned enterprise that has taken on the task itself. task of building more than 16,000 km of motorways during the current financial year.

Some of Vajpayee's other economic initiatives include pressure on telecom and agriculture. The mobile tariffs dropped drastically between 1998 and 2004 and he ushered in national telecommunications policy in 1999.

"Vajpayee was not an economist by training, but when an important policy issue or something that the economy had to deal with, he used his experience and intuition to make decisions and more often than not they were on the spot, "said Sompal Shashtri, a former member of the Planning Commission.

Shashtri, who was then an important member of the government, cites the example of the MSP for wheat in the 1998-99 harvest season. He said that the Committee on Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) wanted it to be increased by Rs 50 per quintal compared to the Rs 460 of last year per quintal. But production costs had risen as a result of the rise in diesel prices.

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Shashtri said he was convincingly persuading Vajpayee that unless the purchasing power of farmers was improved, the Indian production sector will not grow much because farmers are an important consumer segment. Vajpayee convened a meeting of the CACP and tried to reason with them, but when the agricultural division showed little willingness to join his request, he wiped out all opposition and worked out a compromise, making the MSP with Rs 80 was increased quintal. "He was very receptive to ideas and contradictions in economic issues," said Shashtri.

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