From Anil Nair in Mumbai
Former Union Petroleum Minister Ram Naik has built a reputation for moderation. Even when speaking about emotional issues like Savarkar'splaque at Andamans or the ongoing oil crisis, Shri Naik prefers to appear more rational than rhetorical. These days when even the governors tend to make acerbic, no-holds-barred comments to the press Shri Naik'sunderstatements come like a breath of fresh air. Excerpts from an interview:
Shri Narendra Modi had been abroad after the riots but never denied a visa, but now under the UPA rule he has been denied visa and the US is even giving us moral lectures. Also the sale of the F-16s fighter jets to Pakistan underlines the increasing irrelevance of India in the US scheme of things. Do you think India has become a pushover, a doormat for the international community?
There are a lot of people who think so. Manmohan Singh'sgovernment has failed to gauge the depth of the visa controversy. If the government was serious it could have prevailed on the US government. It goes without saying that the US government has antagonized India as a country by denying Shri Modi a visa. Indian government has failed to understand the implications of the denial of visa on the non-resident Indians. On the issue of the sale of F-16s to Pakistan, I am sure it would not have happened if Shri Vajpayee was Prime Minister.
What is your opinion on the Iran-India oil pipeline through Pakistan. Is our security not being jeopardized by the pipeline which can be sabotaged by jehadis.
There is no doubt that the Iran-India pipeline project is fraught with danger. There are various security issues involved. This project was brought to us when we were in government. But we felt it was better to seek alternatives. We had even toyed with the idea of under-sea pipeline. But that was not economically viable. The most viable was to build LNG port terminals and import gas. We even commissioned a 5-million metric tonne capacity LNG terminal at Dahej. We had taken a policy decision to build another LNG terminal at Kochi for gas supply to the south. But now I understand that the government is going slow on the project.
Your government also had eliminated the backlog of waiting list for domestic gas cylinders.
That is true. When I took over as the Petroleum Minister there was a waiting list of over 1.5 crore applications for domestic gas cylinder all over the country. We managed to give over 3.5 crore new connections when we were in power. This mainly included rural households which were still using wood as cooking fuel. Our initiative actually led to women empowerment.
But why is the US lobbying against the Iran-India pipeline?
Well, they want to have absolute control over the global oil resources. Any move by Iran to distribute oil through pipeline only undermines the US strategic interests.
According to you, should the oil companies be allowed to increase prices of petrol products in line with the record high prices in global markets.
The UPA government has discontinued our policy to tune domestic prices with the global prices. The present government only thinks of increasing oil prices when global prices go up but does not commensurately bring it down when global prices fall. Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar has promised to bring out a new policy on oil pricing but that has yet to see the light of day. We have been waiting for long to know what that policy would be.
If you were the petroleum minister today how differently would you have dealt with this issue?
You don'tneed to get hypothetical. Even when we were in government there was a severe global energy crisis when the US declared war on Iraq. Prices zoomed up. But we managed to ensure adequate supply in the country even while maintaining stability in prices. This was due to the effective coordination between the ministries. We reduced the excise and customs tariffs which benefited the oil importing and marketing companies. The companies in turn offered the benefit to the consumers. That kind of coordination is lacking today.
How long can India bear the burden of high oil prices. Will it not affect inflationary trend soon?
Certainly, but inflation can be controlled by careful management of various factors like oil supply management, tariffs, domestic production, inventory management and transparency across industry and market. If you have a slack in any one sector the whole strategy would collapse. Even in the peak of the crisis during the gulf war we maintained adequate supply all over the country. There was never a shortage of petroleum products in the country when we in government ? LPG distribution was streamlined in such a way that consumers could get gas cylinders the same day. Today, all that has been reversed by the new government. People have to wait for 5/6 days for gas cylinders. There is a failure of management at the top.
If you were good at crisis management does the UPA government consult you?
(Chuckles) Mani Shankar Aiyar is not known for such team spirit.
What is your opinion on Sanjay Nirupam'sexit from the Shiv Sena. Will that affect the BJP-Shiv Sena'sprospects during the elections.
Sanjay Nirupam will get his just deserts. He will be considered as a defector even by the people. Now that he has ditched the Shiv Sena he will find it extremely difficult to establish himself politically in Mumbai. It is for the Congress or the Nationalist Congress to decide if they want to take him. But according to me, he has been ungrateful to the Shiv Sena, he has kicked the ladder with which he climbed up to the top.