Q&A Arun Jaitley, Leader Of Opposition, Rajya Sabha
Excerpts From An Interview
There is huge concern about our Parliament — the absence of reasoned debate, constant obstructionism, the quality of parliamentarians themselves. As a veteran parliamentarian, do you also feel there is more cause to worry than ever before?
First of all, no matter what the problems are, I’d like to say that I firmly believe there can be no substitute in a country like India to the parliamentary form of government. India is a complex and plural society and no other form of government can give adequate voice to that multiplicity. The structure of our two Houses compels you towards consultation and consensus. The alternative system of presidential government that some have suggested — even in your cover story last week — makes one individual too powerful. The closest we came to a presidential system was the Emergency where only one person mattered and we actually had an authoritarian regime. I’m therefore a strong believer that parliamentary democracy in India must be strengthened. Of course, there are challenges. Episodes like the cash-for-questions and cash-for-votes scams certainly erode credibility and I’m glad that at least in the cash-for-questions case, Parliament acted very effectively. In the latter case, I think the methodology of dealing with the situation has not been very fair.
Those were obvious cases of corruption. What about more endemic issues — the absence of quality debate, the constant stalling? There was a time when to say something had ‘stopped Parliament’ was big news. Now it stalls all the time.
As far as disturbances in Parliament go, my own preference is strongly in favour of a debate. Parliamentary obstructionism can be a part of parliamentary tactics but I admit it should be used in the rarest of rare cases. I think this tendency of too much obstructionism arises when there is a breakdown of consultation between government and opposition groups, or when a crucial debate is not being allowed. Of course, this leads to a legitimate reaction that, is Parliament losing its purpose? Overall though, I’m not sure such negativism is valid because Parliament has also shown great resilience and it quickly gets itself out of a crisis and back on track. But still, I believe all of us have to seriously introspect and make sure obstructionism is used very rarely. Is it being used too frequently now? My candid answer is yes, it is, it needs to come down significantly.
But in the past year and half, it’s your party that’s really led the obstructions.
I’ll tell you the reason. The principal reason has been the adamance of the government. Take the two biggest obstructions as examples. I’ll not go into the smaller incidents because we can live with one or two days of disruption. It’s the long ones that really create a negative impression. The really big disruption was the Winter Session of 2010 when the whole session was lost. I think the responsibility for this is squarely on the government. If we had not obstructed that session, my own view is A Raja may have still been a minister and the government would not have acted on the CBI to the extent it did. Our demand was for a JPC. You waste the whole session, then agree to a JPC before the next session. Surely the government ought to have seen the reasoning earlier and understood this is a scam of disproportionate size and some heads will have to roll. So yes, the Winter Session was lost but I think that obstruction served India well. You got a JPC; you got Raja out and so on.
The Monsoon Session this year had a little bit of disturbance and then some very good quality debates. This time the disturbance was over the irrational arrest of Anna Hazare. The government’s position was — we will not allow you to hold a rally; if you hold a rally, we will arrest you. And then, in jail, they go and beg him to sit in Ramlila Maidan and hold his rally. This government can’t see beyond its nose.
This session, Parliament was stalled over FDI. Now, who advised the government to announce the FDI move in the middle of a session? Who advised them to announce it particularly when there was a large national opposition? And there was a division of two kinds within the UPA itself. Firstly, two of its allies were strongly opposed to it. Secondly — I’ve said this in Parliament, so I can repeat it here — I think this whole twin authority and leadership issue within the UPA was most significantly visible in the FDI crisis. Ideologically, were the UPA chairperson and PM on the same page? You didn’t find the chairperson making a single statement supporting the concept throughout the entire crisis.
But to finish answering an earlier point you raised — as far as the quality of debate is concerned, I’m very positive about it. I think most of our debates would compare with some of the best anywhere in the world, including those in the British Parliament. That is why when a good debate is on, TV channels switch from regular programming to live coverage. This is a reminder for all our MPs to prepare properly for speeches, speak to the point, and conduct themselves well.
The inadequacies of this government have been in full view. But overall, is it also the case that there’s not much to choose between any political parties today? Everyone’s rhetoric is very shrill but there are no white papers to make any party’s position clear on any major issue. This weakens parliamentary democracy and accusations of political opportunism stick. For instance, what’s the BJP position on the Lokpal or FDI?
I think your general charge is right but maybe it’s a little overstated. I deal with some of these issues as a part of my direct responsibilities in the BJP. As far as FDI is concerned, we may not have a white paper but I have personally penned at least two articles stating the BJP position and I’ve stated that position again yesterday (12 December) in Parliament, giving at least 10 good reasons why India should not go in for this step at this time. So our opposition to that was not mere sloganeering.
On many issues it’s true a lot of public statements and political speeches are made but there’s no reasoned document explaining a party’s stance in black and white, but in the case of the Lokpal, we have done that. Our 18-point dissent note to the Standing Committee report sets our position out in black and white. But I must add, our position on the Lokpal Bill has kept evolving as the debate has evolved.
You say your position has kept evolving. So has many others’. Many have had an anxiety about creating a highly centralised and powerful institution. But your party president Nitin Gadkari gave a blanket letter of support to Team Anna, which, in a way, precluded any other discussion.
I must put the record straight on this. They had one meeting with us at LK Advani’s house late at night when Annaji was sitting on his second fast at the Ramlila Maidan. We discussed the whole thing with them issue by issue. They convinced us on some points, we convinced them on some, and in some small issues, we had different approaches. Nitin Gadkari’s letter was given in the context of that discussion. And our MPs’ dissent note honestly reflects that discussion. On a lot of points, we are closer to Team Anna than to the original government draft. But there are issues on which we have taken an independent position.
Could you spell out your differences?
Let me give some examples. Team Anna wanted to place the PM under the Lokpal and have the power to tap his phones. We too want to place the PM under the Lokpal with some safeguards because a PM is not exempt even under the CrPC or the Indian Penal Code but we said we absolutely cannot accept that his phones can be tapped.
‘Has there been too much obstruction in Parliament? My candid answer is yes. It should be used only in the rarest of cases’
On the issue of government servants with regard to transfers and suspensions, etc, we have said the appointing authority will give due regard to what the Lokpal says, and if it disagrees, it will give reasons, but you can’t have a provision that allows the Lokpal to do something that the Constitution does not allow you to do.
Three, with regard to MPs, we have taken a decision that what goes on inside the House will be the privilege of the House and the disciplinary authority will be the House, but if an MP indulges in corruption outside the House, he will be covered by the Lokpal Act. We have also suggested very reasonable compositions for the selection and search committees.
Finally, one very important question was about the judiciary. Team Anna wanted the judiciary to be under the Lokpal. From day one, we were opposed to this as judicial independence — which is a key principle of the Constitution — would be lost. Whenever the government or Team Anna or anyone has wanted to speak to us, we have tried to keep flexibility. We don’t want to compromise on fundamentals but we want positive movement.
Before we move to the sticking points — CBI, inclusion of citizens’ charters, PM, and lower bureaucracy under the Lokpal — do you think a consensual resolution is possible or are we headed for another season of fasts and paralysis?
I think we are in a hopeful position.
Let’s come to the CBI first. There are many complex issues involved. Team Anna wants CBI completely under the Lokpal; the government and Aruna Roy’s group have different formulations. The CBI has raised its own concerns and worries. It’s clear the CBI must be made independent of manipulation, but how?
You can get the detailed formulation of our position from our dissent note but, in a nutshell, we feel the independence and functioning of the CBI has clearly been compromised by successive governments. Therefore, we feel the CBI must have investigative autonomy from the government and even the Lokpal. But the Lokpal should have administrative supervision or control over it. We have also spelled out that the CBI director should be appointed by the prime minister, Leader of the Opposition and the Lokpal chairperson.
The NCPRI has voiced fears about having an investigative agency that has absolutely no civilian supervision. It could turn into an unaccountable supra-powerful agency and push us towards becoming a police State. There is also talk of the need to separate the investigative and prosecution wings of the CBI but Team Anna is opposed to this.
As I said, we are fine with the CBI having investigative autonomy with administrative supervision by the Lokpal, but we also feel the investigative and prosecution wings should be separated.
What about the citizens’ charters and lower bureaucracy? Everyone agrees India needs a strong and independent corruption watchdog, especially for public figures wielding huge power, but do you really think it’s wise to place the PM, MPs, higher bureaucracy, 57 lakh lower government functionaries and the grievances of 1.2 billion people all under one institution? Apart from the question of efficacy, what is to stop such a powerful institution from developing vested interests?
See, I’ll tell you. The government has narrowed down its option on that question. When the ‘Sense of the House’ statement was made — and a letter was issued by the PM — it clearly said that the lower bureaucracy and citizens’ charters will be under the Lokpal through an appropriate mechanism. Now I won’t give the final solution, but I think the government owes it to the country to keep its word. The flexibility of how this is to be done lies in the phrase “appropriate mechanism”.
The NCPRI says they had met you and you had agreed that citizens’ charters and grievance redressal should come under a different institution. Has your position changed on this?
No, they did express this view and I saw some merit in it. But as I said, the government is now tied to the Sense of the House resolution, so it has to find flexibility in creative ways. In the Standing Committee report, Abhishek Manu Singhvi has argued that “under the Lokpal” actually means “outside the Lokpal but a strong independent mechanism”. I think that is doing violence to the English language and the promise made to the people of India.It’s a perfect example of botching up the whole thing. Your Sense of the House statement says under the Lokpal, your report says not under the Lokpal — so you are just inviting trouble.
‘There is a broad consensus now that we cannot depend on the ‘trickle down’. The State must spend a lot on weaker sections’
Despite this, I don’t think we are in an unworkable situation. You can still create good institutions within the commitments you have made. We have spelled out our position in our dissent note in which we say grievance redressal could have a separate mechanism but the linkage to the Lokpal could be created through a system of appeals on limited questions.
Pinaki Misra, a BJD MP and a member of the Standing Committee on the Lokpal, has alleged in an interview to TEHELKA that through the deliberations, there were almost no divergences and that many parties, including BJP members, came up with their dissent note on the very last day and that basically it’s a dissent note prepared by Team Anna and signed by your party.
I’m not privy to what happened inside the committee but this has been our position for a long time and I presume our members would have brought up these issues in the deliberations of the Standing Committee.
There’s been a lot of speculation that Team Anna was backed by BJP and RSS.
No, there is nothing like that at all. We had no contact with them in the beginning. We had our first meeting only after Anna’s second fast had begun at the Ramlila Maidan and we’d taken up his arrest very strongly in Parliament. This was a very transparent meeting held at Advani’s residence with many senior leaders present and we had a very candid discussion. Subsequent to that, we moderated our position on 7-8 key issues and came to a greater convergence and understanding with them, but not to an identical position. So we’ve had only issue-based contact and they’ve been meeting people from the Left parties as well as Congress, so I can certainly say their movement is completely independent. I’ve also been meeting the Aruna Roy group as and when they have asked and these meetings have helped us evolve our viewpoint.
As you say, everyone’s position has been evolving as the debate has gone along. It’s inarguable that the government has handled the Team Anna movement and Lokpal Bill with incredible clumsiness, but would you also agree that even when they had legitimate concerns, they were isolated and branded as pro-corrupt?
I’ll tell you the reason. I think in each of these areas you are referring to, the twin and dual authority within the government is really beginning to hurt it now. People within the government are moving in different directions all the time. When Anna was on his second fast, an effort was being made to get him to give up the fast and a Sense of the House statement needed to be drafted. Pranab Mukherjee invited Advaniji, Sushma and me to his room and we discussed this. Pranab said in Parliament that I sat with him and drafted it. He’s right. But in those meetings, I suddenly found two Congress parties. There were some senior ministers not enthusiastic about giving any concession at all, while a whole lot of younger Congress MPs were literally sitting on our heads and pleading privately with me to somehow put an end to this issue. I could see a state of paralysis within the Congress and, I must say to his credit, even on the FDI issue, the only person communicating has been Pranab.
What would you say has been the main error of the government on this thing?
I think they have consistently misread the situation. When civil society groups — and that holds true of everyone — agitate on these issues, whether it’s Lokpal or some other demand, they don’t run the system. They are not Parliament. They have never run a government. They are essentially campaigners. A lot of them are good campaigners and their intentions may be the best but they stand for maximalist positions. The government has to listen to them with an open heart, talk to them and come out with something reasonably acceptable to society. Once it’s seen to be fair and Parliament accepts it, even if it falls short of some expectations of these groups in one or two areas, one can live with it. But here, you have a government that is, for one, not thinking or acting as one government and, two, is constantly misreading signs. That is why these crises are taking place. In the end, the government will talk to Opposition and parties concerned and come up with something acceptable to most people but before reaching that destination, they’re getting bashed up for months on end on issue after issue. Because where is the leadership?
You were involved in the JP movement as a student and also close to VP Singh. Some people see the Anna Hazare movement also as a specifically anti-Congress…
There is one difference. I have a comfortable relationship with Team Anna members in terms of dialogue, they come and meet me. I think they are very motivated, a little over-enthusiastic at times but they don’t have any participation of political parties. Both JP’s movement and VP Singh’s movement had a strong official participation of political parties. This movement has essentially maintained a distance from political parties. It’s only now when the Bill is in Parliament that they’re trying to campaign with parties that are closer to their line of thought. The only advice I would give them is that even in one’s speeches, you cannot and should not undermine Parliament and the political system. You can campaign against corruption without doing that. None of the earlier two movements undermined Parliament. If you create a general impression that this can’t work, it’s dangerous because there is no alternative to that institution.
This movement has generated a big debate around the sovereignty of Parliament and the right of citizens to put pressure on Parliament. Where do you stand on this? Do you think this has set a precedent for legislations in the future?
This will happen, but it can work very positively. Let me give an example. When the Product Patent Bill came up in Parliament, there were fears it would create monopoly with regard to particular pharmaceutical products and this would drive prices up, as it had in the West. Still, the Lok Sabha cleared it without safeguards. Then I met a lot of civil society groups, including Left groups. Listening to them, we added some amendments in the Upper House, particularly a clause that prevents the evergreening of patents without significant inventive value. The multinational pharma companies have been trying to get that provision deleted ever since and that’s what has helped keep pharma prices for healthcare low in India. If you ask who should be given credit for this — as a lawyer I supported it in the courts; as a parliamentarian I helped this in Parliament, but in educating me on the subject the NGOs had a huge, huge role. I’d give first credit to them. Therefore, as parliamentarians, we can’t have a hostile attitude towards these NGOs. They’re quite capable of exaggerating, capable of over-statements, and may even be donor-driven or ideologically diametrically opposite, but I think you have to listen to them openly and consult different elements of the society, both experts and NGOs before passing a legislation. It’s up to parliamentarians to decide how much of those views to accept, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with the consultation process. It’s perfectly fine if they act as pressure groups but they must not allocate to themselves the powers of Parliament.
We’d be in total agreement with you on this. People’s movements do raise vital issues. The problem is governments — both this and yours — have no time for movements that involve the truly dispossessed unless there is 24/7 media attention on it. So how much of your party’s openness to this movement has been driven by media?
You are probably right, we are becoming a greater media-driven society. As decision- makers in Parliament or the judiciary, we have to detach ourselves from the noise even as we stay open to it. Coupled with that, I think people are also looking for greater editorial judgement in the media.
So are you keen on mid-term polls?
Frankly, I can’t say. Our keenness is not the issue. The issue is the drift in government. Our intention is to push them to do something.
You said in Parliament that barring Pranab Mukherjee, this government is marred by the fact that it’s either sullen, introverted or arrogant. Can you identify which minister falls into which category?
I don’t want to get personal about it. All I can say is that we hope the PM can make his leadership more assertive.
What is your greatest cause for worry in the country?
The first is the present state of the economy. The rupee is sliding, there is a famine in investment, a loss of business confidence. With this, we stand to lose jobs, lose revenue and then all our social sector schemes will be compromised. Secondly, the breakdown in political communication is a big crisis. I raised this in Parliament and Pranab gave a very good reply. We need to debate this. You can’t have this animus, this situation of constantly going for each other’s throat. In the process, policy-making takes a back seat. Third, and I’m not using the word corruption but a larger word — the quality of people who man politics is a huge concern. The power of politics is immense. The quality of people who use that power must be proportionate to the power they exercise. This has to improve. We need to take care of this somehow.
There is so much talk of fiscal deficit. While most would acknowledge that India needs welfare schemes for its poor, there are also those who feel the social sector spending of the UPA has gone a bit out of control. What do you have to say on this?
That has to be the programme of every government. One of the good things that has happened I would say from 1991 till now is that there is a broad consensus amongst the major parliamentary groups that you have to expedite economic activity in India through reform, but once you have greater revenues, an enriched government cannot depend on the trickle-down effect. It has to also spend a lot of money among the weaker section. It’s a dual exercise that must go on parallel to each other. I don’t see a conflict between investment and social or economic justice. It is only an enriched State that can serve the deprived a little better. So this whole ideological concept of rich versus poor is no longer necessarily valid. What has happened in the past few years is not that the emphasis on helping the weaker section was improper; it’s that this government has completely ignored that part of the decision-making that would expedite the process of generating more economic activity.
How difficult is it to push reforms now?
Reforms are an art in a democracy, there is no straight-jacket formula. You can’t have two authorities in the government that are not on the same page. That is why everything is held up. Secondly, a series of factors from inflation to high taxes to poor infrastructure to the quality of ministers manning some of the key infrastructure portfolios has lowered the sentiment. FDI is not coming in and reverse FDI movement is taking place. I believe India has a lot of resilience but some coherent steps need to be taken.
For instance, take the FDI in retail issue. I’ve repeatedly been saying that this is not the time for it because my fear is international retail will not create additional markets; it will only replace existing ones. Critics of my view would argue that so what if some jobs are lost, other will be created. But the point is, once some Indians lose jobs, they have to be placed somewhere. What’s the point of saying, eliminate middlemen. Middlemen are not some Lashkar-e-Toiba people, are they? They are Indians! They have to be given jobs and the key question is when you eliminate middlemen in India, will the advantage go to the farmer or to the retailer?
In Parliament, I gave the example of milk-producers the world over. In America, 38 percent of the consumer spending on milk goes to the producer. In UK it is 36 percent. In India, where we have a structured co-operative set-up and cold chains, the national average is 70 percent and 80 percent in the co-operative areas. So Amul is the best example of structured retail in India where the producers get more and consumers get a good product.
In the case of FDI in retail, my big fear is you haven’t done manufacturing sector reforms to bring low-cost manufacturing to India. Your interest rates are 14-16 percent, your infrastructure is poor and your power cost is higher. If you allow structured retail to come into the country, it will source internationally. So you will probably have French or American stores selling Chinese goods and the Indian contribution would be sales boys and sales girls. Fifty one percent of people in India depend on self-employment; agriculture is the highest, followed by retail. Is this the state when you should bring in a symbolic act and call it a ‘big ticket’ reform? FICCI or CII may be happy, but will people be?
Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.