In this exclusive interview, his first after his release on bail in the INX Media case, former Finance MinisterP. Chidambaram speaks on the Citizenship Bill and the ills plaguing the economy.
Now that the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) has been passed, where do you go from here? Your tweet did hint about the bill land up in Supreme Court.
It was not a hint. It will happen. I think already a number of people are getting ready to challenge the bill. Whether political parties will formally challenge the bill, I cannot say, but the bill will be challenged by a number of concerned citizens and groups.
There are people like Harish Salve and former judges who are saying that it does not necessarily violate Article 14.
Obviously, there will be two sides to argue the matter. But I think the weight of argument lies in favor of holding that the bill is unconstitutional. First, the classification itself is a suspect classification. If there are half a dozen neighbours, why do you pick only three neighbours? If there are 10 communities which are persecuted for one reason or another, why do you pick out only six communities? So I think even the classification is highly vulnerable to attack.
Assam has virtually erupted, other States in the North East are also pretty tense. Why do you think the government went ahead at this time? What does it tell you over the government’s timing?
Government was taken by surprise when it found that the bulk of the 1.9 million people finally excluded under NRC [National Register of Citizens] were Bengali Hindus.That’s what Derek O Brien said in the Parliament. Now the bulk of them are Bengali Hindus. It’s very unlikely that all of them are illegal migrants. It’s possible they are Bengalis from West Bengal. What will they do with the Bengali Hindus? Will they put them in concentration camps? They had to find a way to take the Bengali Hindus out of the list of 1.9 million illegal migrants.
Some critics say that this is bringing in Hindu Rashtra through the backdoor. What is your take?
It is. It is a clear signal, a blunt signal to the Muslim community of India ‘listen you are not equal. You are in India but you are not equal’. This is the Golwalkar-Savarkar theory: you can live in India, you can eke out a livelihood in India, but you will not be entitled to the rights and privileges of an Indian citizen. NRC and CAB are Siamese twins. If NRC comes first, all the alleged illegal immigrants will be taken out and the CAB will bring back the six communities, leaving the Muslims high and dry. If the CAB is implemented first, CAB will include the six communities and NRC cannot exclude them thereafter. Therefore, clearly the object of CAB and NRC is to exclude only the Muslims.
You have handled the Ministry of Home Affairs and have been privy to data and information. What do you make out of these [NRC] numbers? What is the extent of migration? In Assam the perception is that numbers are much higher than 1.9 million .
None of these numbers is reliable. Remember, India was one country. One country was divided into two and then divided into three. In a country which was one and became two and became three, cross-migration is inevitable. It is one thing to stop migration, illegal migration. But it’s another thing to try to reverse illegal migration.
Many countries have succeeded in the first project but most countries fail when you try to reverse the migration. In fact, in recent times there has been no country which has been able to reverse the migration and expel large numbers of people.
What about national security aspects?
There are no concerns of national security by this kind of displacement of poor people. National security concerns are where agencies of one country plant their people in another country. In fact, I saw a report where a RAW [Research and Analysis Wing] officer testified before the parliamentary panel that the bill will actually enable foreign agencies to plant their agents. The poor are not a national security threat. They are here to eke out a livelihood.
Moving on, you accused the government of being clueless. if Mr. Chidambaram were to handle the economy at this juncture what would the four or five things he would do?
First, tell the Prime Minister, let’s admit our mistakes: demonetisation, poorly drafted and poorly implemented GST, tax terrorism and excessive powers to the taxing and other investigating agencies completely disproportionate to the nature of the problems that we face. Today, any officer of any department can send out a notice. First, let’s admit our mistakes. Secondly, admit that our diagnosis of the problem was wrong. Even day before yesterday, the chief economic advisor said these are cyclical problems, whereas economist after economist, including Raghuram Rajan day before yesterday, said there are structural problems. If the first two pieces of advice are not accepted by the Prime Minister, my third advice to the Finance Minister will be to resign.
This government is catering to the corporate class, not even to the supply side. You took away ₹1.75 lakh crore from the RBI saying that this would be used for bridging the deficit and for investment. Instead you gave away ₹1.5 lakh crore to the corporate class as a tax cut, which benefits about 800 companies. And now you say I am facing a deficit and I’m going to raise the GST which is a regressive tax.
So, you take hair cuts and reduce progressive taxes such as corporate tax and burden the common people with regressive taxes. This is exactly the thing that government should not be doing, but it is doing it. Which is why I say it is clueless.
The Congress talks about the economic distress but BJP keeps winning elections. Look at the Karnataka bypolls two days back!
Don’t relate economy to bye elections. Why? Because bye election are managed. In the Parliament election in Tamil Nadu, the DMK alliance swept all the seats. But in two recent bye elections, the AIADMK wiped out the huge majority of the DMK and won by its own huge majority.
If you want to take an election as a bell weather, the two elections are Haryana and Maharashtra and now Jharkhand. In Haryana, the BJP balloon was pricked, in Maharashtra the BJP was defeated at its own game. Let’s see what Jharkhand throws up now.
Do you see a political revival for the opposition parties for the Congress?
I think the parties are reviving. But there is still some distance to go because they have to agree to, at least, the nominal leadership of the Congress Party. That is the largest party in the Opposition. They have to all agree that if the opposition forms the government, it will be the Congress that will lead the cabinet. Many of them have reservations on that score. The second thing they have to agree is on a common minimum program. And that’s not very easy to work out, and there are so many political parties.
Congress itself has a leadership issue now. Mrs. Gandhi has become the interim chief and there is a section of Congress leaders who wants Rahul Gandhi back but he doesn’t seem to be interested. There seems to be confusion.
Congress has a problem. We have found a temporary solution to the problem by asking Mrs. Gandhi to assume the office of interim leader. And I think eventually the Congress leaders have to sit down together and find the leader who will run the party machinery. Running the party is one thing, leading the nation is another. Sometimes, it will be a happy coincidence, the party leader can also be the leader of the nation. But at the moment we need party leaders to lead the party at the Centre and in the States. Elections will come and they will throw up natural leaders. At present we need leaders to lead the party.
You spend hundred and six days in judicial remand and at the press conference , you talked about your spine, neck and back is stronger. Perhaps a hint that you had to go undergo a lot of discomfort. Would you like to share?
I can say, barring one or two things which were overcome by obtaining court orders, I cannot complain about the manner in which I was treated by the jailers and the fellow inmates. They were extremely kind and extremely supportive.
When you look back at those 106 days, what do you what comes to your mind?
What comes to my mind is that our criminal justice system, at least, the procedural part of the criminal justice system, appears to be badly broken. It requires to be repaired. There are 14,000 under trials in that jail and nobody gets bail. And many of them would have spent seven-five years. Let me underline that the procedural criminal justice system is badly broken.