Ramamurthy riding آ‘LPG waveآ’ in elections

Vol 3, PW 17 (15 Sep 99) People & Policy

This is not a good time to talk Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) with Vazhappady Ramamurthy, Indias acting oil minister.

Ramamurthy angrily denies reports that he is buying votes by offering LPG Connections to electors in his Salem constituency of Tamil Nadu, where he is fighting for re-election. In India, LPG burnt from cylinders is an indispensable cooking fuel for millions of middle to lower middle class households.

Ordinary people will tell you obtaining an LPG Connection is one of the biggest hassles of day-to-day life in India. As oil minister, Ramamurthy has the power to make it less of a hassle.

All oil ministers - past, present and future - have Discretionary Powers to award a fixed number of LPG Concessions. Opponents accuse the oil minister of abusing this privilege by approving as many as 200,000 such Connections to the electors of Salem.

If true, analysts predict that if each LPG Connection translates into a minimum of just two votes, Ramamurthy will secure a landslide victory. He is also accused of charging Rs2,400 ($55) for a Connection, when the real price is just Rs 1,900 ($44), all charges he denies.

"Anyone who approached me got a recommendation, irrespective of their political affiliations", he tells local reporters, "Not a single paisa was charged". Local taxi drivers, contacted by journalists, support the oil ministers claim.

"One hundred taxi drivers sent a representation through ordinary mail to his ministry", said one, "Almost all of us got a connection within two months". No doubt Ramamurthys reputation as the Great Survivor will ensure he gets re-elected.

He leads a one-man party - the Tamizhaga Rajiv Congress - with only himself as member. Post-election survival as oil minister, however, is far from assured.