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Indian Finance Minister Downplays Controversy Over Foreigners on Government Commission - 2004-09-30

India's Finance Minister says a much publicized controversy over the presence of foreign consultants in the country's Planning Commission is a simple difference of opinion between the government and its Communist allies that can be settled easily.

The problem arose earlier this month when the leftist parties that support the government questioned the presence of almost a dozen foreign consultants on the Planning Commission. Most of them are foreigners, with Indian heritage. The commission prepares and implements India's economic blueprints, known as the Five-year Plans.

As the leftists were trying to raise their objections with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, the experts in question - who are from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and some private firms - offered to resign. But according to Indian newspapers, the deputy chairman of the commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, insisted the foreign experts would continue in their jobs.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram says there was no need for the dispute to become a major controversy and the whole matter could have been resolved very easily.

"The Planning Commission is not a secret body," he noted. " It is an open body and if someone of Indian origin is asked to serve as a consultant for a brief period, and if someone has an objection to it, I think these matters could be resolved across the table over a cup of coffee."

Finance Minister Chidambaram says the leftist parties are allies of the government and they have a right to be heard.

"The left parties have a point of view with which we may agree sometimes and we may not agree sometimes," he said. "But certainly being our allied partners they are entitled to be heard and their point of view is entitled to be considered. And on this issue the prime minister has said that he is considering the leftist objections. I think I need not add anything more."

Planning Commission's Deputy Chairman Ahluwalia told reporters Tuesday that members of the commission will meet with the prime minister in the coming days to resolve the issue.