I can’t imagine Jawaharlal Nehru using a language that Narendra Modi used recently in the Lok Sabha :Chidambaram

Posted on: February 12, 2017

Congress leader Palaniappan Chidambaram looks different today. He is not in his trademark white veshti and shirt. He is sporting black trousers and a grey pullover, instead. His tone is a touch different too, more reflective, easier, patient. The former finance and home minister is seated in his plush basement office at Jor Bagh, a tony central Delhi neighbourhood, open to questions and candid to answer. Since the Congress went out of power in 2014, Chidambaram has built upon his earlier reputation, writing a punctiliously researched and widely read weekly column. Fearless in Opposition , a new collection of his essays, has just hit the stands, and Chidambaram is in an expansive mood. He answered a wide range of questions Sonia Sarkar put to him. We present excerpts:

Q: The name of your book is Fearless in Opposition. But why do we see so little real Opposition in Parliament?

A: That’s because our numbers are small in Lok Sabha.

Q: But you have spoken only twice in Rajya Sabha, last year. Why?

A: Since the time I became the member of Rajya Sabha in June 2016, my regret is that there have been few debates. One major debate was on the goods and services tax (GST), which I initiated and the other on Kashmir, which Ghulam Nabi Azad initiated and during which Karan Singh spoke. There was one half-complete debate on demonetisation. If that debate had continued and the Prime Minister had yielded to the legitimate demand of the Opposition, I was scheduled to speak on that.

Q: What are your achievements as an Opposition?

A: We forced this government to retreat from distorting the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. Also, they are revisiting the GST rate; now the state finance ministers have agreed with me and said that the standard rate should not be more than 18 per cent.

Q: How do you think demonetisation has damaged the economy? How do you see the budget?

A: Demonetisation has damaged the economy by, at least, one per cent of GDP. This damage will affect next year’s growth rate and, I suspect, even the growth rate of 2018-19. The budget showed little empathy towards casual labourers and daily income earners, who suffered greatly by demonetisation.

Q: How do you rate Arun Jaitley as a lawyer and as the finance minister?

A: He is a very good lawyer. But going by the economic performance of the government and the budgets he has presented, I am afraid, that… they have done no structural reforms, they haven’t come up with any new idea and their implementation is poor.

Q: The Congress has been criticising Modi’s policies but why do you think his popularity is still increasing?

A: If you measure popularity by electoral success, well, the five state elections will be an immediate indicator of his popularity.

Q: What are the Congress’s chances in UP? Is the Rahul Gandhi-Akhilesh Yadav magic going to work?

A: Clearly, the SP-Congress alliance will be the number one party in UP. UP’s shadow will fall on Bihar and Madhya Pradesh too.

Q: But can the two – SP and Congress stay together?

A: That will depend upon who gets what numbers in the elections. But the Congress will support Akhilesh to form the next government.

Q: Akhilesh has displayed his strength by revolting against his father. But Rahul is not taken seriously in politics. People call him “Pappu”. How would he fight this image?

A: These are your or your paper’s perceptions. Whoever uses the word, “Pappu”, that is his perception. They (referring to Ram Manohar Lohia) called Indira Gandhi, ” Goongi gudiya” (dumb doll). But later, (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee called her “Ma Durga”, after the Bangladesh war. Remember, what they said about J. Jayalalithaa when she came into politics and look at what they said when she passed away.

Q: What has been your role in the party in the ongoing elections?

A: I am not involved in the election management of these five states. But I did say, it will be wiser to have a tactical alliance with one of the major parties (not BJP) because we are in the fourth position among the four parties in UP.

Q: In your book, you say that the Congress must communicate its views to its cadres in other Indian languages, besides English and Hindi. Are Congress workers in the states going away?

A: What is said in Delhi must be communicated to the states in their languages. In the states where the Congress is weak, we are not attracting new talent. Some workers may have drifted to the regional parties, wherever the latter is strong.

Q: You have said the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) should be more humane. What efforts did you, as Union home minister, make to make it more humane?

A: I wanted AFSPA to be repealed. Since there was no consensus with the defence ministry on the repeal of AFSPA, I left behind an amendment of AFSPA. If you are not repealing AFSPA, at least amend it, make it more humane. The defence ministry said, if AFSPA is not there, it will deprive the armed forces of the much needed immunity. My argument is that this law allows you to work with impunity. This law gives you the right to kill. Anyone who believes in human rights cannot support that provision.

Q: You were the home minister when there were consecutive uprisings in Kashmir in 2009 and 2010. How do you think you failed as a home minister?

A: 2010 was a gross failure of the state police in containing the youth violence. We learnt our lessons and things were changed. From 2011 onwards and till 2015 (till the eighth month of the NDA government), it was the best period in Kashmir.

Q: In 2010, a three-member panel was set up to review the situation in Kashmir but nothing happened after that. Why?

A: Three interlocutors made a remark-able difference to the narrative of Kashmir. Their dialogue with people brought about a change. I think, (the former chief minister) Omar Abdullah tried but as it turned out, many of the recommendations were not implemented.

Q: You have said the number of incidents of terrorist violence in Kashmir has gone down from 4,522 in 2001 to 222 in 2014. But 2001 was the peak of militancy and 2014 wasn’t. Isn’t this a faulty comparison?

A: No, it isn’t. How did the number fall? It happened due to better border policing and treating the unrest among young people in the Valley with a more different and humane approach.

Q: Last year you said some people think that the Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’s case may not have been correctly decided. But when he was hanged, your government didn’t even inform his family members in Kashmir.

A: I think it was poorly handled.

Q: Now that you have analysed where you went wrong on Kashmir, will the Congress (if it comes back to power) look at Kashmiris with compassion?

A: We must go back to give meaning and content to Article 370, and give Kashmir a larger degree of autonomy. Even if that means asymmetric devolution of powers, so be it.

Q: In 2015, you also said that the Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to ban Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses (1988) was wrong. Were you not in a position to influence the decision then?

A: I was a junior minister then. Decisions were taken by Cabinet ministers. But I am willing to concede that our understanding of authors’ rights then was limited.

Q: When you are in Opposition, do you have enough time to look back at your mistakes?

A: Of course, that’s reflected in the columns. Wherever I find that we have had made mistakes, I have candidly put them in my columns.

Q: How do you see the recent turn of events in Tamil Nadu?

A: It’s the right of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MLAs to elect their leader. It is the right of the people of Tamil Nadu to ask if that leader deserves to be the chief minister.

Q: In 2009, it was shocking to see a journalist hurling a shoe at you at a press conference. But don’t you think the language of protest in India has stooped to a new low, especially on social media?

A: It has happened because the language used by the ruling party is abusive and divisive; and that catches on. I can’t imagine Jawaharlal Nehru using a language that Narendra Modi used recently in the Lok Sabha. Those who are in high office must use language which is parliamentary, moderate and conciliatory, even when you criticise the Opposition.

Q: Lalu Yadav once said, I don’t see any reason for any politician not to aspire to become a PM. Do you want to become the PM too?

A: Not necessarily. In fact, once you are in public life, you must not aspire to become anything, you must accept whatever comes your way. When you are young, you can aspire. After a certain stage, you don’t aspire.

Q: Where is your way forward with the Congress going down? What is your plan ahead as a politician? Also, how do you see yourself two years later, in 2019?

A: I am not looking for any career advancement. I will continue to work for the party and the victory of the party in 2019.

Telegraph, February 12, 2017




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