That's a big number in cash-strapped India and represents a major shift in direction for New Delhi. After a half-century, Indian bureacrats are finally getting out of the business of running business. Shourie aims to privatize everything except defense-related, atomic, or railway companies. This is not a halfhearted program that leaves the state retaining control: Shourie wants the paper-pushers completely out of the picture and all shares in private hands. In most cases, he sells to a single strategic investor who is motivated to shake up management.
His zeal has made Shourie, 60, one of India's most respected ministers--at home and abroad. Normally soft-spoken, he gets positively passionate about curbing government interference in business. He likes to point out that in the decade before he took over the disinvestment portfolio, the government spent $8 billion trying to prop up 30 companies. "Not a single firm was turned around," he laments. "We have to learn from this history."
Shourie, who earned a PhD in economics from Syracuse University in 1966, is unwavering in his belief that private businessmen can run companies better than governments. That's no surprise. He hails from Punjab, which has a long entrepreneurial tradition. Besides, the companies he has sold--mostly money-losers or barely profitable--have taken off since being put in private hands. For example, earnings at bakery-and-confectioner Modern Foods, sold to Hindustan Lever in 2000, nearly doubled in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same period in 2001. Production had tripled six weeks after Paradeep Fertilizer Corp. was sold in March.
As a result, Shourie has had little trouble offloading state companies. He got higher-than-expected prices for stakes in carmaker Maruti Motors and Indian Petrochemical Company Ltd. And with investors salivating over the sale of as many as 23 more government companies by next March, their total market capitalization has increased 62%, to $31 billion this year, according to investment bank CLSA Ltd.
Some have accused Shourie of selling off the national patrimony. "I'm disposing of bleeding ulcers," he says. "But the allegation is that I'm selling crown jewels." Ministers trying to protect corporate fiefdoms have been fierce critics, and his program has sparked 10 parliamentary debates. Unions, too, have not gone along passively. Shourie's announcement last year that Bharat Aluminum Co. (Balco) would be privatized precipitated a strike that cost the company $50 million in lost production.
Aware that he is a lightning rod, Shourie fosters a clean image. Though not obliged to do so, he turns over all documents to the auditor-general the day after each sale. That way any allegations of impropriety can be quickly and impartially investigated. And he makes sure the bidding process is open and that the highest bidder prevails.
As a crusading journalist who took on vested interests inside and outside the Congress Party-led government, Shourie was precisely the sort of talent that the Bharatiya Janata Party needed after it took office. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee believed that Shourie would bring the same sort of courage to his ministerial post. Despite his devotion to the cause, Shourie tries to be home from work by 7 p.m. each evening to spend time with his wife and disabled son. And despite his travails, he remains optimistic. "There is an infinite opportunity in India," he says. "But society is much more creative than the state." In two short years, Shourie has already proved that--and then some.