'Increasing polarisation has become the theme of Modi government'

Updated - September 02, 2016 05:40 pm IST

Published - February 26, 2016 03:13 am IST

Former Union minister for home and finance, P. Chidambaram has been an active player in much of India’s public life in the last three decades. On the eve of launching a book on his columns completing a year in the opposition, called Standing Guard (Rupa publications), he speaks to Nistula Hebbar and Vikas Dhoot on nationalism, sedition and what he would have done with an absolute majority in Parliament….


Q: Why is your book about the year in opposition and not your ten years in office?


A. (laughs) Because that will take a lot more time to write. I am not saying I won’t write about it ever. But this is a contemporary and relevant review of what’s happening in the country every week and putting it together so the reader at the end of the year gets a fairly complete idea about what happened in the country over the year.


Q: What is the one thing that stands out in your mind about the NDA government in the past year or its 21 months in office?


A. There are nearly 20 columns on the economy and related subjects. I would have thought at the end of the year, what happened to the economy would be the defining theme of the Modi government. Unfortunately, I find it is the rise of intolerance and the increasing polarisation which has become the defining theme of the Modi government in 2015.


Q: Do you think he’s a polarising figure?


A. I think his party and his party’s affiliates have many polarising forces, such as the way they are framing the debate on the JNU episode, on the suicide of Rohith Vemula, lynching of Akhlaq. The frame that they are building around these issues clearly reveals their intent to polarise Indian Society.


Q. You have said in an interview that you have some doubts about the culpability of Afzal Guru in the parliament attack case?


A. I said one can hold an honest opinion that the case was not correctly decided and the degree of involvement of Afzal Guru was not correctly assessed. If someone holds that opinion, he doesn’t become an anti-national. He’s just holding a different opinion.


Q: A lot of people would use this to attack the Congress party and its days in office when it prosecuted Afzal.


A. I didn’t say it’s my opinion. I said if someone holds that opinion, you can’t accuse him of dishonesty or anti-nationalism.


Q: In Kashmir, the BJP and PDP joined hands to form a government. You had pushed for the dilution of AFSPA in your tenure as home minister. Do you think we would see that happening under the current regime?


A. I was surprised when PDP and BJP formed a coalition govt. The only rationalisation I can make is perhaps it was unavoidable given the fractured mandate. But it certainly had no moral or political justification. Be that as it may, the removal of AFSPA if not the repeal, is one of the major planks of PDP policy. The BJP is totally opposed to even reviewing AFSPA. So I am not surprised that AFSPA has become one of the bones of contention between the PDP and the BJP. I am curious to know how they will resolve it. If they put it on the backburner, both of them are being less than truthful.


Q: Do you feel that we are back to the 1990s in Kashmir?


A. See, the mind of the Kashmiri youth gets affected not only by what happens in the Kashmir valley. It also gets affected by what happens elsewhere in India. I think the increased sense of fear and insecurity among the Muslims is playing on the minds of Muslims all over India, including Muslims in Kashmir. How can one say that the Kashmiri youth are not concerned about what happens to other Muslims in the rest of India?


Q: But you don’t see it as a slide back towards the days of militancy


A. Without full information, it’s difficult to say whether the militants that are active today are home-grown militants or infiltrators from across the border. If they are infiltrators, that has to be dealt it in particular manner. IF they are home grown militants, that is more worrying and has to be dealt in a particular manner.


Q: Do you feel that the way debates are being framed in recent months, is an attempt to divert attention from the mismanagement of the economy?


A. Maybe it was not intended. But that is the consequence. IF you frame the debate on such issues in a particular manner, it does distract from the real issues that affect the country, which are issues of bread and butter, income, jobs, investment, growth, development, and infrastructure. Obviously, the nation’s attention as well as the government’s attention to these gets diluted because you have framed some other debates in a polarising manner.


Q: Do you think the government’s being reactive by emphasising so much on farm sector, rural development and even MGNREGA in the President’s address to Parliament, despite the PM’s earlier stance against MGNREGA?


A. That is the President’s speech. I would like to see how that is reflected in the Budget. President’s speech is a statement of intention. Budget is a plan of action.


Q: In its first year in office, the Prime Minister made major policy pronouncements such as abolishing a law a day and that it had no business doing business. But little has been said on strategic sales of public sector firms yet, just as we continue to live with several archaic laws.


A. It’s now common ground that the BJP and Mr Narendra Modi over promised and they have under-performed. That’s the general feeling across all sections of people. There is a danger in over promising.


Q: What about Retrospective Taxation.


A. They should repeal it. That section should be amended straightaway and made prospective, if they want to keep that section.


Q: How do you react to the fact that Vodafone received a tax notice the same week that the Prime Minister spoke about the undesirability of restrospective taxation?


A. That shows the disconnect between what is happening at the department level and the thinking of the policy making level. I can only say that those who are making policies are not in full control of the department.


Q: Some say the government lacks intellectual heft at some levels and there is a gap between the pronouncements at the top and the implementation on the ground, partly due to this government’s governance style of micro-management without a mechanism to facilitate genuine hurdles faced by the bureaucracy. What’s your view?


A. Both these are inevitable consequences of over-centralisation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is no intellectual power in the government. But most people simply withdraw. People who can contribute, remain silent.  They don’t take the initiative, don’t offer ideas because of the overwhelming feeling that all decisions are centralised in the PMO. This is the price you pay for over-centralisation.


Q: If you had Mr Modi’s numbers in parliament and you were the finance or home minister, what would you have pushed through?


A. If I had 282 seats, I would have repealed the retrospective tax amendments. I would have certainly amended, if not repealed the AFSPA. I would have set up the Natgrid by law, notified the NCTC by law, if necessary, or by executive order. We would have pushed through the Direct Taxes Code, which I think is absolutely necessary and overdue by at least 10 or 15 years. We would have passed the GST of course. And we would have taken up many of the FSLRC recommendations and where it required laws, we would have made the laws. At least the regulatory framework for the financial sector would have been completely redone if I had 282 or 330.


The pity was that none of the truly reforming governments in the last 30 years, had an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. And when you have that majority, the present government is not using it to bring about bold, structural reforms and institutional reforms.


Q: You had said that post the Bihar election verdict, there might be a course correction in the government’s approach.


A. I was wrong. On the contrary, post Bihar, if you look at the way they are reacting to the Hyderabad University incident and the JNU incident, they seem to have stiffened their backs and decided to go the way of chest-thumping and muscle-flexing nationals.


Q: Yesterday, some ministers talked of how Maoist movement infiltrates the DSU and they are using that excuse to crack down on JNU?


A. It’s possible that there are some students whose sympathies lie with the Maoist movement. But unless there is incitement of violence, it is not sedition. The slogan Pakistan Zindabad, etc is heard everyday in Kashmir. The slogan for Khalistan is heard almost every week in Punjab. There were people in Tamil Nadu who sing the praises of the LTTE and even glorify the LTTE cadres who were behind the killing of Rajiv Gandhi. Some of it is clearly unacceptable and punishable. But is it punishable as sedition? That is the distinction we are drawing. Now which other law is attracted will depend on the nature of the provocation, the exact words that were uttered and the place and time and context in which they were uttered. Any lawyer familiar with the law laid down in this behalf will know that this is not sedition. And even today, I find that the police commissioner is defending the charge sheet against Kanhaiya Kumar on the ground of sedition. Clearly, going through what Kanhaiya Kumar said on that day, it does not attract the law of sedition. In fact, I don’t think his speech attracts any law at all (laughs).



Q: What is your advice to Mr Jaitley on the eve of the Budget?


A. Well, the expenditure statement and the revenue book would have been printed. Only the speech remains. I don’t think anything I say will find a way in his speech, so why say it? He is against quoting poets, he said so last time. I hope he changes his mind this time.


Q: This is a government without poetry, unlike Mr Vajpayee’s government?


A. (Laughs) Or humour, for that matter.


Q: What would you have done with Aadhaar, since you had reservations as home minister on the scheme?


A. No, Aadhar is necessary. The only debate at that time was which should be the agency that took it forward. Should it be the UID authority or the Registrar General of India? Then it was agreed that both would carry on in different areas. Ultimately, it is the RGI which has to do the mop-up and bring everybody who’s left out, into Aadhaar. And it is the RGI’s work that has a certain finality. Otherwise, UPA was very clear that Aadhaar has to be progressively expanded to cover all Indians and it should become if not the sole, at least the primary instrument of identity.


Q: On the GST Bill, are you expecting a change of stance?


A. For a change of stance, you must ask the government.


Q: The government is saying the cap on the rate cannot be put in the Constitutional Bill?


A. That’s wrong. Of course, capping the rate on the Bill can be done. What is the problem with that? Mr Jaitley’s Bill, in one section, mentions the rate one per cent. So why can’t the Constitutional Amendment Bill mention a rate? His own bill mentions a rate.


Secondly, the profession tax provision of the Constitution – Article 276 – contains a cap of Rs 2,500. That number is mentioned in the Constitution. So mentioning a cap in the Constitution is not unprecedented.


Q: Towards the end of UPA’s second innings, you set up the project monitoring group in the cabinet secretariat that managed to secure clearances for stalled investment projects worth Rs 6.5 lakh crore. But under this government…


A. Mr Anil Swarup continued to head it for some months. When he moved to the ministry of coal, the clout that PMG carried was lost. There is a dire need for putting in place a semi-permanent mechanism, if not a permanent mechanism, to get stalled or stranded projects off the ground. There are still over 250 projects that are still stranded for one reason or another. And until we clear the last of them, it is still necessary to have a mechanism.


Q: You mentioned that an over-centralised governance style leads to people withdrawing and not taking initiative. Do you think this could lead to a form of policy paralysis that is probably worse than was seen in UPA’s last years?


A. I don’t think there was any policy paralysis in the UPA government. What happened was the whole atmosphere became so full of acrimony because of the corruption charges arising out of the 2G and coal allocations. Everybody was living under a sense of fear. But at the policy level, decisions were being taken.


In the present government, the real reason why you get a feeling of stasis – everything has come to a standstill – is because of over-centralisation. In a country as large as this and in a complex exercise as the Government of India, once you over-centralise decision making, everybody simply ceases to act. They just fold their hands and wait for the decision to be handed down.


Q: There seems to be a larger unity in the opposition now and the Congress party seems to be veering extremely close to the Left.


A. I am not surprised. That is because the Left has modified its view of the Congress party. Congress party must always look to the left, must always lean for the poor. And if you find an ally on the left, why not ally with them?


Q: Why is your book called Standing Guard?


A. We are in Opposition. The fact that I am in opposition, does not mean that I am your enemy. I am just performing my role as the Opposition, which is to stand guard over what is happening in this country.

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