Among the BJP’s most prominent faces, the Rajya Sabha MP holds two crucial portfolios in the Narendra Modi Cabinet — Urban Development, Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, and Information & Broadcasting. He found himself in the news over the one-day ban on NDTV India imposed recently, later suspended, and is also the government’s trouble-shooter both inside Parliament and outside it. Known for his repartees and for maintaining good ties across parties, Naidu has been vehemently defending the demonetisation exercise.
VENKAIAH NAIDU: The entire country is discussing the so-called demonetisation. But demonetisation hasn’t taken place, it will happen after some time, the process has just started. People are also calling it a war on corruption and a war on black money, a big debate is underway, I hope it continues. There is overwhelming support for the step taken by the Prime Minister. Some people have been asking why was this measure taken so suddenly. But such decisions have to be taken all of a sudden. Also, if you listen to the Prime Minister’s Mann ki Baat, he had said it clearly: “Before taking any extreme steps, the government must give people a chance. So my dear brothers and sisters, this is a golden chance for you to disclose your undisclosed income. Also, this is a way for you to save yourself from any trouble that could arise after September 30. I don’t want you to face any problems after September 30.” These are the Prime Minister’s words. So in that sense where is the suddenness that some people are talking about?
Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister on May 26, 2014, and on May 27, the first Cabinet meeting took place. At the meeting it was decided that a Special Investigation Team (SIT) will be formed to unearth black money stashed in foreign countries. So, that was the beginning.
The Prime Minister is preparing the country towards two objectives. One is cashless transaction and the second is direct benefit transfer. All I can say is that people with valid money are sleeping soundly, but some people can neither sleep nor weep. These are the people who are trying to divert attention from the main issue (of black money) and saying, ye hai, wo hai (this is wrong, that is wrong). There are difficulties and we are trying to address those difficulties. At the end of the day, this (demonetisation) will be a great success.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: There have been long queues outside ATMs since notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 denomination were scrapped. Did it rattle the government in any way?
Any inconvenience to the people is a cause of concern for the government. We are a sensitive government. We are trying to address the problems. It takes time to print currency. I am told it takes around 21 days. Then it takes another three weeks to transport it. Now, of course, the government has said that use aircraft if necessary (for transporting the new currency). And then there are only 82,000 banks. So we are now engaging around two lakh people as bank mitras. Also, the recalibration (of ATMs) takes time. These are all practical problems. Because of the secrecy needed for the measure, despite advance caution, some things could not be simultaneously tackled.
Some of the responses that I am getting on Twitter are, ‘Sir when we go to the cinema hall on the first day don’t we have to wait in line for hours for the ticket.’ So people understand that this is all for the good of the country. There are two reasons for this response — one is utmost faith in the leadership and commitment of Modi. Secondly, it’s pious work. People are saying he is doing the right thing, if there are small difficulties along the way, we will bear them.
SANDEEP SINGH: But has the situation gone out of hand? Did the government anticipate this?
There is no such thing as going out of hand. During Chennai floods, people were in water for seven days. There is shelling at the border… We stand by our suggestion and believe that it is a good measure.
Whatever we could anticipate, whatever we could do, we have done. Whatever ideas and suggestions are coming our way, we are acting on them. We are also aware of the negative campaign… We have information about how certain elements are trying to influence public opinion, how they are trying to create a negative opinion, to ensure that this great war against black money and corruption started by the Prime Minister fails. They are trying to scuttle this maha yagna. There are no regrets at all. Inconveniences are being addressed and we are sure in the coming days, it will be taken care of.
COOMI KAPOOR: All your life you have been fighting against authoritarianism and censorship. How does it feel now that you are on the other side?
I am not on the other side. We are on the side of the people. I wonder why no one spoke out when 21 channels were taken off air (during the UPA regime). Just because this thing has happened during the Modi government, it is a big issue. ‘It’s an Emergency-like situation’. It is a very uncharitable comparison. (Earlier this month, the I&B Ministry’s inter-ministerial committee had recommended that NDTV India be taken off air for 24 hours for allegedly revealing “strategically-sensitive information” during its coverage of the anti-terror operations at the Pathankot airbase in January 2016).
Let me give you the complete details about the NDTV issue. Freedom is best utilised when its value is fully appreciated. When this freedom is not exercised judiciously, our existing laws have to make interventions. I haven’t invented any new law. I am not trying to take shelter under the Emergency provisions. In India, people have the right to freedom of expression. It is given more value than economic advancement. NDTV had been forewarned, they have gone wrong earlier too. Once, they published a map excluding certain parts of India. Even before the government came into the picture, some well-meaning citizens complained and then they corrected it. Similar opportunity was given to them regarding the Pathankot coverage too. But they haven’t retracted their steps.
COOMI KAPOOR: What do you mean when you say they haven’t retracted their steps?
They should have said, ‘Yes, mistake ho gaya (we made a mistake)’. Some people are saying that the case should have been taken up by the News Broadcasters Association. Even I had expected them to act. If such scenes had come to their notice, they should have acted. Had they acted, then there would be no need for an inter-ministerial committee. I am not accusing them. I am placing the facts before the people. It had come to my notice that NDTV aired certain things which people felt were not in national interest. Keeping that in mind, as per the rules, action was taken.
Sometimes I wonder what is freedom? Freedom is respecting your freedom, others’ freedom, while also respecting the freedom of the country. You have to follow some regulation, whether it is self-regulation, regulation by large, regulation by provenance, it is all common sense. Dissent is understandable, but disintegration is not. We can’t accept it.
Prannoy Royji (the co-founder and executive co-chairperson of NDTV) and other journalists of his team met me and said that their point of view was not being fully appreciated. I said, ‘Ok, give me an appeal, I will consider it’. In all fairness, I asked that the order be kept in abeyance till I saw the appeal. Twenty-one such cases happened during the earlier regime but people were silent then. Now they have become violent with this government because we believe in the freedom of press. This government hasn’t done anything against anybody. Had it been the earlier government, there would have been consequences, and that is why these voices were silent then.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: But whether it is the NDA or UPA regime, should the government be regulating content on private television?
You tell me. Should you show naked things, should you show a wrong map of India…? This has been done by some newspapers and notices have been served. And then you say the government should not do anything. I am answerable to Parliament. Newspapers and television channels will not be questioned, but the minister will be asked, ‘What is it that you are doing?’. My point is regulation and we are trying to find a way for it. I am talking to other colleagues and will also take advice from the media. But saying that India is a free country, so everything is free and I can give two states of India to China, that is something that I am not willing to accept.
LIZ MATHEW: The BJP has always opposed personality cults in politics. But there is a perception that your party and the government is increasingly becoming centered around one person, the Prime Minister. Does this perception have any basis?
There have been several headlines in newspapers that say the BJP has no face in Maharashtra, that the BJP has no chief ministerial face in UP… But it is the party fighting the elections. Why should newspapers say there is no face, when there are in fact many faces in the party. In India, ‘personality’ has also become important over the years. Who is the leader, what is his character, what is his calibre, what is his capacity, what is his conduct… If you have a good leader, it is an advantage. If you do not have a capable leader, you preside and somebody else decides, like it happened earlier. But now that is not the case. The Prime Minister presides and the team decides.
I have seen the Prime Minister in Cabinet meetings and outside, he gives equal importance and opportunities to everyone. He takes decisions only after hearing everyone’s views. And once he takes a decision, he is firm. The country wants a decisive leader and fortunately we have one.
But at the same time I can tell you that the party is run on principles, on programmes, on ideology… A leader has to be the leader. There can’t be ten leaders leading the party, right?
ANAND MISHRA: Do you think the ‘surgical strike’ and demonetisation measure will work to the advantage of the BJP in the UP Assembly elections?
These steps were taken in national interest. We did not have any state elections on our minds. The surgical strikes were a preventive step.
ANAND MISHRA: But the strikes at the border in J&K have been repeatedly raised by your party in UP.
It all depends on the public discourse in the region.
SHEELA BHATT: There have been reports in some Hindi newspapers that since your government came to power, more than a thousand small newspapers have been de-recognised. There have been accusations that the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP, the nodal agency for government advertisements) is not giving these newspapers advertisements either.
I can assure you that no newspaper, irrespective of its circulation, which is up to a particular standard as prescribed and agreed upon by all, will be penalised or punished.
KRISHN KAUSHIK: Few regional newspapers, including Rajasthan Patrika, some newspapers in Kashmir etc, have accused the DAVP of not giving them ads because they did not toe the government’s line.
The Rajasthan Patrika issue has been brought to my notice. Sri Gulabji Kothari (Editor-in-chief, Rajasthan Patrika) spoke to me as well. The issue has been addressed.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Given the atmosphere, do you think in this Parliament session the Opposition will cooperate and support the passing of some key laws?
This atmosphere has been there from day one, since Modiji became the Prime Minister. Since then we have been observing the behaviour of the opposition parties. They are just not willing to accept the mandate of the people. The problem started there. One day they say this government is very intolerant… So I told them (the opposition parties) that yes, there is intolerance, there is intolerance in accepting the mandate of the people. On one occasion they stormed into the well of Parliament and said, ‘Bring back black money’. So I stood up and said, ‘Well tell me where have you people kept it? Then we will definitely get it back’. Because the money wasn’t sent abroad during our regime.
COOMI KAPOOR: This atmosphere that you are describing when Modi came to power, seems similar to what is happening in America with Donald Trump winning the elections.
How can you compare the two? I don’t agree with that comparison at all, I don’t like it. What I am saying is that in spite of this (the opposition to PM Modi), we have got many Bills passed. At the end of the day it is all about public opinion. At the end of the day, corrective measures prevail because this government believes in giving maximum opportunity to the Opposition. I always tell them, the government will propose, you oppose. Let us all then dispose.
Tomorrow, even in this atmosphere, I don’t think they (the Opposition) can go against public opinion. People will ask them, ‘Are you on the side of the kala dhan walas (black money hoarders)?’. The Opposition will criticise our measures… They can criticise, they can talk out, they can walk out. The Prime Minister has already said that we must discuss all issues in Parliament.
RITU SARIN: After two-and-a-half years in government, is there a greater appreciation of the role of the media now? The PM has interacted with the media on several occasions.
I, the Prime Minister, Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad, we are all victims of the Emergency, so there is no question of any negative thinking. The priority is development, good governance, not the small issues that are being highlighted. The main issues are missing (in media coverage). Make development a story, find faults in the promises made by the government — how many Jan Dhan accounts were promised and what is the status now, how many roads were promised… If the coverage is on these lines, the government will be very happy. But simply taking an isolated incident and making it a big issue and then criticising the government for it… Sometimes it pains. Report without support, information without confirmation… one has to deal with these things.
RITU SARIN: Have you approved any construction at the Prime Minster’s residence, and has it begun?
Everything will be done as per rules. I don’t keep an account on what construction is taking place, where another floor is being added… There are rules and regulations and there are no exceptions to that, which includes the Prime Minister’s residence. And, what is wrong if the Prime Minister’s house gets renovated? He is the Prime Minister of the country. PM is the PM of the country. As of now, I am busy with the war against corruption, black money. Let us all talk more about that.