The two-day strike by the unionised employees of the public sector banks, which ended on Wednesday, is unlikely to cause the government to drop the proposal to sell off two more nationalised banks. The nation-wide strike was a partial success with some banking operations continuing on both days of the strike. Given that the government has sought repeatedly to reassure the employees that their interests would be protected, it is correct to presume that the strike was motivated by ideological considerations.
Public sector bank employees’ unions affiliated to the left parties were in the lead in organising the strike. Theirs is a voice in the wilderness, neither they nor their political masters now retain much political relevance, though they still have the capacity to create avoidable hurdles. Considering how disinvestments, mergers and acquisitions in the banking space have resulted in creating first-class private banks in a span of a couple of decades, considering their success with people preferring to bank with them, opposing the privatisation of two sick banks is counter-productive.
Happily, the government has drawn up an ambitious programme not only for two banks but a host of other public sector entities with the overall objective of mopping up Rs. 2.5 lakh crore in 2021-22. The reticence over disinvestment that had slowed down the process in Modi 1.0 no longer seems to hold back the process. Indeed, a core group of secretaries for asset monetisation has already considered a tentative list of assets which are to be sold off. Among them are said to be seven loss-making airports, 50 railway stations, 150 trains, telecom towers, highways, sports stadia, gas pipelines, ports, waterways, etc. Such a comprehensive list for asset sales underlines a complete change in the government policy towards the public sector.
The department of investment and public asset management is facilitating the monetisation of non-core assets. Whether it will succeed in achieving the budgeted target remains to be seen, given the past experience there is little room for optimism. Admittedly, the Prime Minister this time appears to be committed to monetise the loss-making assets unmindful of the opposition from the left and other quarters.
On Tuesday too, when Rahul Gandhi tweeted support for the striking bank employees and went on to say that the government was privatising profit-making undertakings while retaining loss-making ones, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was quick to rebut. Accusing the Congress government of frittering away national assets in sick public sector enterprises, she countered, “Nationalising corruption and privatising tax-payers’ money for the betterment of one family is all that Rahul Gandhi will have to take as a reply for that tweet, which probably some outsourced fellow in his team is feeding him with…”
Although post-1992 economic liberalisation, ordinary people are no longer enamoured of the public sector as something sacrosanct, and conversely do not consider private sector anti-people, the government will have to be prepared to blunt false propaganda that a demoralised opposition and the remnants of a depleted trade union movement are bound to unleash to try and queer its pitch. Getting out of all non-core businesses ought to be a matter of priority for the government.