Opposition should find issues against us that actually stick: Hardeep Singh Puri

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has shared the facts of the excise policy case, in which the liquor vendors have themselves claimed a substantial increase in commission; voters are mature enough to decide for themselves, says former diplomat, senior BJP leader and Union Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, and Petroleum and Natural Gas 

May 05, 2024 01:15 am | Updated 07:24 am IST

Hardeep Singh Puri

Hardeep Singh Puri | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

The Prime Minister and the RSS chief have affirmed their support for reservations, says Hardeep Singh Puri, adding that the BJP-led NDA has done more for the SCs, STs, and OBCs than the previous governments. It is for the first time that a tribal person has become the country’s first citizen, he tells The Hindu. Edited excerpts:

Opposition parties have accused the BJP of using probe agencies to intimidate them, citing the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

In Delhi, we had an IIT graduate and a former revenue service officer who decided to join an anti-corruption crusade with Anna Hazare. He swore never to join politics but eventually joined it. He also promised to remain an aam aadmi but made a sheesh mahal for himself.

There is no doubt that the excise scam [in connection with which Mr. Kejriwal was arrested by the ED on March 21] happened. Alcohol vendors themselves have said that the commission shot up from 2% to 12%. Moreover, the agency [ED] tried to contact him eight times. On the ninth occasion, it used its powers to arrest him. I leave it to your readers to judge whether the agency was acting at someone’s behest or only doing its work. The agency has made its facts available. Our voters are mature and discerning enough to decide for themselves.

What is your take on Rahul Gandhi’s decision to fight from Rae Bareli?

Amethi and Rae Bareli have been the Gandhi family’s pocket boroughs for many decades. Ideally, you should have nurtured and developed these constituencies. But there is a worrying streak in Indian politics — some leaders believe that it is better to keep people poor so that they become more beholden to you. Such ideas are embedded in the Congress, which has made its leaders politically irrelevant.

The protracted confusion and dissimulation over fighting from Rae Bareli or Amethi do not bode well for the Congress party.

I have a theory, though. Despite whatever Priyankaji has done, she is not being allowed to enter the mainstream.

Why has reservation become such a big poll issue? 

It’s a non-issue. The BJP has always supported reservations, and this has been reaffirmed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.

Do you think Artificial Intelligence can potentially interfere in politics and elections? 

Artificial Intelligence is a matter of serious concern if misused but one must find ways of dealing with it because, as a tech innovation, it is here already and large parts of the youth have embraced it. We are a resilient society and we need to find ways of dealing with it.

Many beneficiaries of the PM Street Vendor’s AtmaNirbhar Nidhi (PM SVANidhi) launched by your Ministry say they have not been able to pay off their loans. 

The scheme was inspired by the work of Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist, who came up with the idea but could not run it there. When we came up with the scheme, the economy was paralysed by COVID-19. Organised sectors could manage, but street vendors had to take loans at high rates of interest to tide over the crisis. So, the first instalment of ₹10,000 without collateral was given to vendors to help them pay off old debts. After that, when they also repaid the loan, they received progressively larger amounts. A total of ₹11,358 crore has been disbursed under the scheme so far. Your statement that many of them were unable to pay back is not correct. The NPAs [Non-Performing Assets] under the scheme are no more than the average of NPAs under any other financial exchange. 

But street vendors say the scheme is quite centralised. 

I admit that there are some residual problems. We are dealing with them. The idea was to give street vendors some dignity. Under the scheme, 68 lakh vendors have got loans, with many of them getting follow-up loans also. 

What is your assessment of the caste census issue?

We should remember that the Congress-led UPA had conducted a caste census in 2011 but their government sat on it for three years. In the garb of caste census, the Congress wants to snatch reservations of one section of the community and give them to another section. The Modi government is fully committed to reservations for the SCs, STs and OBCs. This government has done the most for them. It is for the first time that a tribal person has become the country’s First Citizen.

The Opposition has accused the BJP of focusing on divisive issues rather than working on poverty, unemployment, and health care.

I continue to be amused by the Opposition’s statements. I want to remind them that the BJP has been successful in moving millions out of multidimensional poverty in the last 10 years. Over 80 crore people are getting free rations. We have kept food and fuel prices down during our tenure. The Opposition should find issues that would actually stick.

How can India secure its energy security? How important is it to global diplomacy?

We have a booming economy. Our energy consumption is three times higher than the global average. Energy is vital and important. It has always been very important to global diplomacy. We can be proud of having access to energy in every corner despite challenges.

 Could it be attributed to our neutrality on the Russia vs Ukraine issue?

You have to tackle these matters very carefully. Sometimes you take a tough stand on certain issues, sometimes you don’t. Data on our crude oil import show that before 2022, Russian crude figured at 0.2% and then it suddenly went up to 30%. But that was a function of discounts. We used to import from 27 countries, now we import from 39. We try to strike long-term deals. 

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