P Chidambaram, senior Congress leader who has held the Union home and finance portfolios, believes a sense of fear has gripped the Indian media, small Opposition parties and even some state governments after the Narendra Modi government came to power in May 2014. "There are immense — and illegal — pressures on individuals. I want to drive home the point that, in a democracy, we must be fearless," he says.
His new book, Fearless in Opposition, a collection of his columns, will be released in New Delhi on Friday. In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Chidambaram spoke on a range of issues. He stated that NDA-government starting its tenure with the 'Congress-mukt Bharat' slogan damaged the relationship between the government and Opposition badly, which continued thereafter. “That one slogan poisoned the atmosphere.”
Commenting on the ongoing tussle in AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, his home state, the Congress leader also said that the 'people of Tamil Nadu have a right to ask if the leader elected by the AIADMK legislators is fit to be chief minister of the state' in an obvious reference to VK Sasikala, who has engaged in a fierce battle with O Panneerselvam for the chief minister's post.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow:
Could you tell us a bit about your new book?
It is a collection of my columns published in The Indian Express every week during 2016. I wrote on the political economy, social issues, governance issues and some columns on law and foreign policy.
The name is interesting — Fearless in Opposition. Why would someone, even in Opposition, feel fear in the first place?
There is fear, especially in the media. Many small Opposition parties and even some state governments feel threatened. There are immense — and illegal — pressures on individuals. I want to drive home the point that, in a democracy, we must be fearless.
What is the biggest challenge you faced as an Opposition party member?
Personally, I don’t find anything as a 'challenge' to me as an individual. There are indirect pressures, but I shrug them off. The absence of meaningful debates in Parliament is a challenge.
Is there a change in the philosophy that connects the government and Opposition relationship after the NDA took over?
Yes, the BJP/NDA began their tenure with the slogan 'Congress-mukt Bharat'. We did not say 'BJP or RSS-mukt Bharat'. That one slogan poisoned the atmosphere. Besides, the NDA repeats ad nauseum that nothing was achieved and everything was rotten in the past 70 years — presumably including the six years of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
How do you assess Narendra Modi as a prime minister in the past three years?
People will — and have — rated the government. It is mixed. The government got a thumping rebuff in Bihar and Delhi.
It’s been three months since demonetisation happened. How do you analyse the gain/pain of the exercise at this stage?
There are no gains. There is only pain inflicted on millions of people. The damage to the economy will be a one to two per cent hit on the GDP.
But, wasn’t it a pain the economy had to go through at some point to clean up the system?
What clean-up? Has demonetisation put an end to corruption or black money? How do you explain the numerous instances of both corruption and black money that have surfaced — using the new Rs 2,000 notes — in different parts of the country? Will the government guarantee that henceforth no one will demand a bribe or demand capitation fees? Will government guarantee that all property transactions will entirely be done by cheque?
Former RBI deputy governor, KC Chakrabarty said in an interview that the UPA too proposed demonetisation, but RBI rejected the idea.
Wrong. The UPA never mooted demonetisation. In fact, there is a CBDT report that argued against demonetisation.
How do you rate Arun Jaitley as a finance minister particularly with respect to financial sector reforms?
Like I said earlier, people will rate the government and the ministers. Jaitley comes from Punjab. He contested in Punjab. Let us see how the people of Punjab rate him (in Amritsar) and his government.
The NDA government has been largely successful in sticking to the fiscal roadmap. Isn’t it a good thing?
They have not. They slipped badly in 2015-16. The fiscal deficit overshot the budgeted number of 3.9 percent and ended with 4.31 percent. For 2017-18 also, instead of aiming at three percent, he has budgeted for 3.2 percent. Two slippages in three years and four Budgets is not a proud record.
Some in the Modi government have countered note ban critics by saying the pain is only in the short term and only black money hoarders are opposing demonetisation. What is your take?
That is the BJP's approach to democratic debate and dissent.
I oppose demonetisation. Do I become an anti-national or hoarder of black money for that reason? That's absolute rubbish.
Has the Congress recovered from the 2014 shock? How confident are you of a strong return in 2019?
I cannot predict the results of future elections. I think you too should not! Regarding the Uttar Pradesh elections, the Akhilesh Yadav-Rahul Gandhi leadership of the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance has energised the campaign and is gaining more support every day.
What's your take on the developments in the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu?
I think the people of Tamil Nadu have a right to ask if the leader elected by the AIADMK legislators is fit to be chief minister of the state.
Do you suspect any conspiracy in J Jayalalithaa's death?
Published Date: Feb 10, 2017 09:01 am | Updated Date: Feb 10, 2017 09:01 am