"OVER Rs 150,000 crore of the people's money has been invested in the public sector, while the annual return is less than Rs 3,000 crore. This is grossly inadequate," admits the Congress manifesto. But, says Mukherjee: "This quarrel between the so-called public and private sector is substantially artificial." The public sector plays its own role in the areas that are earmarked for it, like in the social sector. While disinvestment is under way to see that the people at large have a stake in the PSUs, Mukherjee promises a multidimensional approach to improve the working of PSUs, including autonomy for chief executives.
In comparison, the BJP has a clearer agenda. "Because the BJP's goal is to provide productive employment and at the same time free our people of government controls, we are resolved to reduce the size of government in a phased manner," says Vajpayee. He will set up a disinvestment commission which will privatise PSUS rapidly, and the proceeds, he promises, will be used only for capital expenditure.
What an NF-LF regime will do is clear from CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet's views. "The process of whittling down the public sector will hardly bring efficiency gains; it will only destroy the one sector that until now acted as a potential bulwark against TNC arm-twisting," he says. This paranoia extends to the Janata Dal manifesto, which says the public sector should be improved by professionalising management and providing autonomy.
Like in many of their other policies, here too, the NF-LF combine seems woefully out of touch with Indian business' concerns. As Subodh K. Bhargava, CEO, Eicher group and former CII president, puts it: "Unless privatisation is effectively done, the continuous drain on the Government exchequer will continue."
Others are not so diplomatic. Says Devin Narang, managing director, Narang Industries Ltd: "PSUS, which have become white elephants cannot survive on taxpayers' money forever. It is imperative that they be privatised in order to become competitive." And, says Yogendra K. Modi, chairman, YKM Holdings: "There should be privatisation of all public sector undertakings and the money received should be used to reduce the national debt. Loss-making companies should be sold as a block, either to Indian or to foreign investors. Profit-making companies can be disposed of by selling their shares in India and abroad." Not much chance of that if the NF-LF comes to power. Or is there? The CPI(M) government in West Bengal has been pursuing privatisation quite aggressively. Though not with much success.