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Vajpayee takes `political wind' out of Sonia's sails

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The Prime Minister, Mr A.B. Vajpayee, at the CII National Conference & Annual Session in the Capital on Saturday. The outgoing CII President, Mr Sanjiv Goenka (centre), and the new CII President, Mr Ashok Soota, were also present.

NEW DELHI, April 27

IF yesterday it was Ms Sonia Gandhi who sought to market the Congress (I) as the natural party of governance for India Inc to do business with, today it was the turn of the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to hit back.

In a strongly-worded riposte to the Congress (I) President's not-so-subtle allusion about the `political winds' blowing in her party's favour, Mr Vajpayee used the same platform of the Confederation of Indian Industry's (CII) Annual Session to tell the gathering of industry honchos that "you will continue to do business with us, and we will continue to do business with you."

Asserting that his Government was stable, cannot be derailed and was here to stay for its full term, Mr Vajpayee rebuked the Leader of the Opposition by noting that "it does not make business sense to count one's chickens before they are hatched."

On Friday, Ms Gandhi, while delivering the opening address to the CII Annual Session, had referred to her being asked to kick-off the annual get-together as being indicative of the industry's implicit recognition of the diminishing political fortunes of the ruling National Democratic Alliance.

But in a no-holds-barred reply given in his keynote address today, the Prime Minister stated that he was "unable to see any deep symbolic meaning attached to the inaugural and concluding sessions of a CII conference."

If invitation to inaugurate or conclude conferences could make one speculate about an impending change in the direction of the political winds, "then I must say that such people seem to think that chambers of commerce and industry have more powers to make and unmake governments than the people of India."

Mr Vajpayee also tried to underplay the impact of the Gujarat violence on investor confidence by stating that "a lot of good things are happening in our economy" and "let not the temporary disturbances in Gujarat cloud this basic fact." In this context, he specifically mentioned about the fall in interest rates and the big jump in housing finance loans.

"I am told that as much as Rs 13,600 crore have been loaned in the nine months from April to December last year for constructing new houses - and that was before competition hotted up in the housing finance market," the Prime Minister said, while also drawing comfort over the progress in the National Highway Development Programme (slated for completion next year) and reforms in the telecom, IT and insurance sectors.

Stating that the Indian economy would grow by six per cent in 2002-03 - as against 5.4 per cent and a low of four per cent in the preceding two years - Mr Vajpayee said referring to the recent projection of 6.4 per cent growth for 2003 made by the United Nations' Global Economic Outlook. "(This) will make us stand second only to China on the growth chart," he said, adding that there was, therefore, "no need at all for either diffidence or despair."

The Prime Minister also chided the opposition parties for engaging in a "shrill and divisive campaign" over Gujarat, which was presenting a picture of national disunity and encouraging outsiders "to start giving us sermons."

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